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Nightmare Returns

Thu., July 10, 1997

Soldiers at a military camp on the outskirts of Phnom Penh took time out from the chaos of battle last weekend to burn down the house of a neighbor with whom they had a land dispute. “Go and complain to the human rights groups,” one soldier taunted the owner, “because there are no more human rights in Cambodia.”

The story was told Wednesday by a Cambodian human rights worker to illustrate his despair at what he saw as the death of an ideal that had just begun to take root here after decades of war and suffering.

“It is finished,” the rights worker said. “Everywhere, people are losing their freedom. They cover their mouths when they speak because someone might hear them.”

He added: “Do not use my name. In Cambodia now if you use my name, you will never see me any more. It is very easy to kill now because there is no law.”

His words reflected a widespread fear among both Cambodians and foreigners here that the country’s brief, hopeful moment of civil liberties had been crushed by the weekend coup.

From around Cambodia there were reports of dozens of arrests of opposition officials, after the execution Tuesday of Ho Sok, a senior adviser to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the ousted first prime minister. There was also an unconfirmed report that another of the prince’s top officials, Chau Sambath, had been arrested and may have died in custody.

Thirty opposition officials were arrested in Pray Veng Province, 13 in Battambang and 20 in Kompong Speu, according to a foreign human rights investigator.

Other opposition officials and at least one Cambodian journalist in Phnom Penh said they had received calls or visits from security personnel, and fears grew of a widening crackdown. There were reports that judges had also been warned to obey the wishes of the government. Hun Sen has returned Cambodia to a one-party system - as it was under his Communist rule in the 1980s - and government institutions now answer only to him.

At Phnom Penh’s airport Wednesday, the jostling crowds of foreigners boarding evacuation flights were sprinkled with some of the leading figures of the royalist party led by Prince Ranariddh, who was ousted by his coalition partner, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, over the weekend.

Among those who left were the prince’s son and his sister, Bopha Devi, one of the great court dancers of the past. She departed with a dozen members of the royal court, but left behind her white lap dog.

In Washington, the United States said it was reducing the number of its diplomats in Cambodia to 20, from 61, because of the “uncertain security situation.”

In a well-planned military action, Hun Sen made his final move last weekend in a sharpening feud with Prince Ranariddh while the prince was on a visit to France. He declared the prince a traitor and said he would be put on trial if he returned home.

His coup ended a bitter government partnership that was put in place by a $2 billion effort in democracy building by the United Nations. That effort included an election, in 1993, and the institution of a model constitution.

Some 90 percent of Cambodians, many dressed in their Sunday best, voted in that election, despite threats of violence. And apart from a largely corrupt and ineffectual government - all but paralyzed by the rivalry between the co-prime ministers - many Cambodians embraced the opportunity to build a free society.

With foreign help, the country developed an energetic and often brave press corps, a growing cadre of young lawyers and an expanding number of organizations dedicated to fostering human rights.

“I feel like this country had a real chance,” said Brad Adams, who has spent the past four years here helping to create democratic institutions. “People were starting to plan a little; Cambodians hadn’t been able to plan ahead for 20 years. Now they have no confidence in the country, no confidence in the future.”

The Cambodian human rights worker said he had already paid a visit to a local military commander and told him, “Please help me, and I will work with you.”

“He said: ‘No problem. If something happens, give me a call,’ ” the rights worker said, pulling from his pocket a slip of paper on which he had written the commander’s telephone number.

But he said the sight of foreigners fleeing his country had brought back memories of 1975, when the Communist Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, seized control of the country. Foreigners fled then, too, and over the next four years more than a million Cambodians were executed or died of starvation, disease and overwork.

No one expects a repeat of that horror, but its memory resonates.

“Many people plan to escape if things get worse,” the rights worker said. “Like me. I plan to escape if there is no other solution.”

At the sprawling Cambodiana Hotel on Wednesday morning, as hundreds of foreigners boarded buses for evacuation to the airport, the hotel staff was seized with dread.

“Do you leave today also?” a chambermaid asked a foreign guest. “I am very sorry for my country.”

At the airport, where more than 1,000 foreigners boarded special aircraft, an American writer named Bob Lang said he was leaving because he was frightened. “There were so many bombs going off that it’s shaken me up,” he said. “Now every time a door slams, I just jump. I’ve got to leave to get my concentration back.”

He said he could not help feeling he should stay behind with his Cambodian friends. “I feel bad,” he said, “but what can we do?”

Francis James, an American lawyer who runs the independent aid group Legal Aid of Cambodia, said he feared that a great international experiment in fostering freedom had been in vain.

“After four years, what does it all mean?” he said. “Instead of the rule of law, we’ll have the rule of thugs. This was Cambodia’s window of democracy, and now it’s closed. They’ll say, ‘Hey, we tried it, and it didn’t work.’ “


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