BATTAMBANG, Cambodia -- You see the signs of trouble within the first few miles on Highway 5, the road leading from Phnom Penh west to Battambang.
In early morning it is already choked with traffic, because guerrillas have once again blown up the railroad. Moreover, the road is less pavement than gravel and potholes, overseen by government soldiers who set up illegal roadblocks and demand bribes for passage.
The 175-mile trip takes seven hours, and it leads to the front line of Cambodia's civil war, a conflict seeming without end, fought between the government and the Khmer Rouge. For after a $3 billion effort by the United Nations to rebuild the country, Cambodia is a sobering lesson about the limits of what outsiders can do in a society still tormented by the past.
Cambodia was supposed to turn out differently.
This was to be the international community's tour de force, an example of how peaceful intervention by the United Nations could restore a nation in which more than 10 percent of the population had been murdered and foreign armies had regarded the territory as their own.
The situation is not entirely bleak, since private aid agencies have helped rebuild agriculture and provided thousands of people with the training or capital for jobs. A dramatic revival of Buddhism has helped restore the underpinnings of what remains a deeply religious society.
But the government in Phnom Penh, the capital, includes some of the figures who steered the country to disaster from the 1960s through the 1980s. And some of the mistakes from the era are being repeated.
Now as then, money and attention are lavished on palaces in the capital, while schools and roads are left to deteriorate in the countryside.
Corruption is enriching civil servants, while an inept military seems unable to deal with the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in the countryside.
This is the country that was the ill-fated "sideshow" to the Vietnam War, the country bombed and invaded by the United States. Later, the government seemed to collapse of its weight, opening the way for the Khmer Rouge to take power in 1975.
In the name of an unconventional brand of communism, the Khmer Rouge would proceed to kill more than 1 million of their countrymen. Then came an invasion by Vietnam that pushed the Khmer Rouge back into the jungle but at the cost of another 15 years of oppression.
Finally, in 1993, the United Nations supervised national elections. Cambodians chose a government led by the royal family in partnership with Communists who had been loyal to Vietnam, plus a small Buddhist party.
Now, the threat of the Khmer Rouge is the government's rallying cry -- and its excuse for a slide toward authoritarianism. Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, responding to criticism of Cambodia's human rights record, insists that "discipline is more essential in our society than democracy."
The roads north and west from Battambang testify to the problems confronting the government.
At night, this is still Khmer Rouge territory. The Khmer Rouge were supposed to become part of Cambodia's new political establishment but refused to take part in the elections. The government responded by declaring them illegal. The Khmer Rouge have resorted to terrorizing villages in hopes of persuading the government to change its mind.
In a typical action, the guerrillas in February shelled a village called Phum Bour, about 30 miles northwest of Battambang.
Along with most of the other villagers, Vann Oeu fled to a refugee camp five miles down the road. And he says the Khmer Rouge's strategy is a mystery: "They used to come and try to talk to us, to convince us that we should join them. Now they just kill us."
They have also carried out conventional assaults. The Khmer Rouge needed only 500 troops and seven tanks to storm the front-line garrison town of Treng, about 30 miles east of Battambang. The army retook it several weeks ago, but not before the guerrillas left with the contents of the army's supply depot, including 100,000 rounds of ammunition.
Khmer Rouge defectors say the organization has enough ammunition, plus sufficient income from the ruby mines it controls, to wage a low-grade "people's war" for another 20 years.
Threat from soldiers
The guerrillas are not the only threat. Few people in the villages outside Battambang feel safe walking outside at night or when traveling to other villages by day, because of corruption among government soldiers. A soldier wanting someone's motorcycle simply takes it; a soldier wanting a bribe will demand it.
And both sides in the war are guilty of planting land mines -- an estimated 10 million of them, one for each of the country's 10 million people. The mines maim and kill 400 people a month.
"It's half peace and half development," says Sdeong Peach, whose husband was killed by a mine near the border with Thailand.
So economic development remains slow: Land that used to be the country's most productive rice fields cannot be cultivated because of the threat of mines. Villagers cannot easily take ZTC agricultural products to the big cities for sale, because of the poor condition of the roads.
Critics say the most important threat to democracy comes from the government itself, the coalition led by royalists and Communists. They both seem intent on accumulating wealth and on quashing internal dissent.
In July, the royalists expelled the reform-minded finance minister from his party and then expelled him from parliament -- using the rationale that a politician is elected to represent a party, not constituents. Thus, anyone with views of his own must go.
"The past few months have been very depressing in Cambodia," says Demelza Stubbings, an analyst for Amnesty International. "We've seen a pronounced drift back toward authoritarianism."
During a visit to Cambodia earlier this month, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and his aides praised the government in public but in private warned the leadership that the trend toward intolerance and repression could threaten future U.S. aid.
But the message did not seem to have much of an impact: On Aug. 5, the day Mr. Christopher left Cambodia, six people were arrested for distributing leaflets critical of the government. The press, too, has become the government's target. A newspaper editor has been jailed for a political cartoon that displeased the government, and a new press law bans articles that damage whatever the state determines to be its interests.
"There's a trend in the government to eliminate opposition," says Thun Saray, president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association.
"The government thinks that the Khmer Rouge is their biggest problem, but by silencing democratic voices they are creating conditions for the Khmer Rouge to prosper."
Cambodia sometimes seems as if it were two very different countries -- Phnom Penh, and then everything else. Phnom Penh is a city of 1.2 million people, a place of casinos and grand boulevards and villas that are the remnants of French colonial rule. The flat countryside gives way to dense forests under skies that in the summer rainy season are deep blue in morning and bring a downpour in afternoon.
They are the ideal conditions for growing rice, Cambodia's traditional export. At its peak 800 years ago, the civilization of the Khmers used the agricultural wealth to create one of the great kingdoms of Asia.
Some progress, albeit limited, is being made to recapture that prosperity.
International aid agencies have invested in rural development projects, and Cambodia welcomes the help. Indeed, the $200 million in aid given each year directly to the government accounts for about half of the government's total income.
In Baydamran, a few miles east of Battambang, the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services organization has provided $20,000 in start-up capital for a small-scale bank. The bank's loans average $26 -- enough to open a family-based business.
Chum Cheoum, a mother of 10, borrowed $30 to buy ingredients for making rice snacks that she sells in town. Sdeong Peach borrowed $15, enough to set up a noodle stand. The bank expects to earn enough money in interest to repay the $20,000 to Catholic Relief Services in three years.
A road leading up the mountain Phnom Sampeou, near Battambang, shows another way that Cambodia is being rebuilt. At its foot lives Kim Bunthoeum, an intense, 29-year-old monk trying to save a Buddhist monastery there.
His education was at the hands of three older monks, the only residents of the monastery who were not killed by the Khmer Rouge or did not flee. The Khmer Rouge had leveled everything except the dormitories.
Now, Mr. Bunthoeum is the most senior of the 36 monks and 40 novices, and thus has become its abbot.
"A big problem is illiteracy," he says. "We just can't get monks who can read and write. When they say they want to be monks, I tell them to go to school first and study the Cambodian language, then come back to me."
Further up the mountain path lives a hermit nun, Roeun Pho. She is 60, her head shaven, and says she feels freed of earthly constraints -- a feeling she says was impossible until the new government restored religious freedom.
'Now I've finally found peace here on the mountainside," she says.
But at the summit is a pit next to a concrete pad. The concrete once was the base of a reclining Buddha; the pit was filled with corpses by the Khmer Rouge. Later, local Cambodians and troops from Vietnam cleaned up much of the blood, but they also stripped the bodies of valuables and smashed the Buddha, in hope of finding gold.
On the concrete are skulls stacked four high, a memorial to those who died.
In the distance -- perhaps 10 miles away -- are the mountains where the Khmer Rouge still fight.