Eye Witness

September 18, 1998

Violent demonstrations in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, are a daily reminder that the result of the July general elections is still contested and that the country's bloody history cannot be easily reversed.

Stephen Heder, of London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, has followed the violent history of Cambodia for 30 years. He says it is impossible to establish whether the stalemated elections in which the Cambodian People's Party emerged without a clear majority in parliament were unblemished. Before the count was completed the UN-coordinated international observers pronounced the elections free and fair, but Mr Heder, who was in Cambodia for the elections, said: "The truth of the matter is unknowable because the nature of the observations was not to ascertain how much fraud there may or may not have been. People believed there was fraud and were quite aware the observers were not able to prevent it if it was occurring."

Demonstrations have escalated, and this week police fired dozens of shots to disperse anti-government protesters. Mr Heder said demonstrators appeared to be a mix of factory workers, casual workers, Buddhist monks, lycee students and moto-taxi drivers.

"Although two of Cambodia's universities have reopened, there are relatively few students compared with lycee and high-school students. As the universities are government institutions, faculty has not been a factor," said Mr Heder.

The effect of the Pol Pot years has been to decimate the intellectual elite of Cambodia. There are few networks and no written texts around which intellectuals can group. "The moto drivers are more significant," Mr Heder said.

Cambodia's current crisis has evolved independently of the financial meltdown that has created instability across much of Southeast Asia in the past year. Its origin lies in the 1993 elections, held to avoid continued civil war after the convoluted horrors of the Pol Pot regime, the Vietnamese occupation, and years of civil war through UN-administered elections. These brought a surprise victory for a coalition of the centrist United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia, led by Prince Ranariddh, son of former head of state King Norodom Sihanouk, sharing power with the defeated former prime minister, Hun Sen of the Cambodian People's Party.

But a plot to assassinate Hun Sen and the murder of an opposition leader in 1996 followed by a further political murder added to the growing political instability. In July 1997 Hun Sen ousted Ranariddh, who fled to exile in Paris. July's elections gave a narrow victory to Hun Sen after a campaign in which political opponents were denied access to the media, intimidated and murdered.

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