Cambodia: Reality Sinks In

After a week of uneasy calm following a contested national election on July 28, during which numbers of Cambodians sought sanctuary on spare sofas abroad, the last few days have seen a sudden return to the angry vitriol which marks political life here.

The opposition leader Sam Rainsy, a French-educated banker,told an estimated 10,000 supporters Tuesday that the opposition party he leads will call for a street protest if demands for an impartial investigation of electoral irregularities aren't met, raising tensions further.

Sam Rainsy earlier warned that ruling-party bigwigs deserve to go to prison after being behind the draining of a peaceful lake in central Phnom Penh, dislodging 3,000 poor families from their homes to make way for snazzier houses for the politically-connected elite.

"The people who filled in the lake are criminals and they will be put in jail because we need to keep this lake to relieve flooding in the city, and the lake is also for tourists," Sam Rainsy said.

Those involved in the seizure of the land are high officials in the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who himself had a couple of days hunkered down in baffled seclusion after an election that jolted the usually super-confident strongman, in power for 28 years, with dramatic increases in seats for the opposition coalition, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the national assembly.

Hun Sen's People's Party won 68 of the 123 legislative seats, with the National Rescue Party taking 55 in a contest marred by widespread charges of government fraud and vote-buying.

Before the election, Hun Sen repeatedly warned of a return to civil war or a time resembling the dark, murder-filled Khmer Rouge period if his long-ruling party should lose. Sam Rainsy has refused to back down, saying his party won't negotiate with the president and his party for places in the government. He has called on the National Election Committee to launch a joint investigation along with independent poll investigators and representatives from the UN, which appears unlikely, given the election committee's closeness to the government.

The tough interior minister, Sar Kheng, now has warned of "trouble" if Sam Rainsy doesn't return to the negotiating table to resolve the stalemate between the CPP and the opposition over the alleged electoral irregularities. "Trouble" in Cambodia, if past history of the last three decades is any guide, is another word for "violent confrontation."

Sar Kheng said that the country's national development could be adversely affected by the present political paralysis.

The interior minister, who is himself another of these supposedly reformed former Khmer Rouge in the leadership of the CPP government - Hun Sen is the number one of the group - met with Western ambassadors to castigate the CNRP for "irregularities" - claims by the CNRP that they won the election.

Sam Rainsy's case was that while the ruling CPP had won by a 68-55 seat tally, the opposition coalition led by the CNRP actually had won 63 seats, a majority. Sam Rainsy insists that the United Nations should be involved in helping to resolve the argument.

The UN in the early 1990s were heavy on the ground here in 1993 for Cambodia's first free election, managing to instill a bit of democratic sentiment. But the UN still could not make it come right after Hun Sen's minions, with the help from a black sheep royal prince, declared the secession of a number of provinces, forcing the CCP to rule alongside the victorious royalist party - a party that is now history, winning no votes at the 28th July election. In 1997, the CCP instigated a coup which drove the royalist party out of the government, killing up to 100 of its top people.

Hun Sen has ruled smugly since, although he appears to have suddenly realized that the populace at large now has little love for him despite its onetime respect, if it ever had any, given that he was a former Khmer Rouge.

You would think Sam Rainsy, having just come back less than three weeks ago from four years of comfortable exile in the fleshpots of Paris, would have been ready to put his shoulder to the plough, but he has just airily stated that he will be leaving immediately to attend his daughter's wedding in Boston and will be off-scene for 10 days

He will no doubt also use the break to re-establish old relationships in Washington - the CNRP looks towards the US. In the earlier parts of Cambodia's history that coincided with the war in neighboring Vietnam, the country suffered under the secret and illegal B.52 bombing of its eastern territories in Richard Nixon's war.

While it is every man's right to give away his daughter as bride, it seemed an unusual time to quit the country.

"Now, because the situation has improved and the party is in good health, I think I can afford to be away for a few days and then return," Sam Rainsy said. "This is my last opportunity to show my daughter than even though I have a lot of commitments, I am still a human being and father."