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Cambodia totters on brink of anarchy

THE CAMBODIAN government yesterday began debating a controversial bill to outlaw the Khmer Rouge, one day after a failed coup attempt in a country already hovering on the verge of anarchy. A general is under arrest and an estranged son of King Norodom Sihanouk has fled the country after an abortive attempt to take power with a column of armoured cars and several hundred rebel soldiers.

It is one year since UN peace- keepers supervised elections in Cambodia, but today not even the main streets of the capital, Phnom Penh, are safe. Bandits harass travellers outside the main towns with impunity, while the Khmer Rouge guerrillas in jungles to the west and north show they are as formidable as ever. 'It is tragic, but it is time to stop talking about the 'great UN success story' in Cambodia,' said a Western aid worker with 15 years' experience of the country. 'It has failed miserably.'

After peace talks between the government and the Khmer Rouge failed last month, the Second Prime Minister, Hun Sen, determined to pass a law branding them as outlaws, closing the door on any future attempt at reconciliation. His proposal split the government between those who want to continue fighting the Khmer Rouge, and those who see negotiation as the only solution to more than two decades of warfare.

With the government already buckling under charges of corruption, the army humiliated by Khmer Rouge victories and King Sihanouk absent from the country again on a health cure in China, Prince Norodom Chakrapong and General Sin Song attempted to grab power. Their rebel troops were stopped 20 miles outside Phnom Penh on Sunday morning without a shot being fired, but the escapade only further degraded the government.

Over an 18-month period, the UN spent pounds 2bn to organise elections which were meant to end Indochina's last war and propel Cambodia towards prosperity. Instead, the UN withdrew last September frustrated and chastened by the violence of the Cambodian conflict and its inability to put an end to that violence.

The Blue Helmets failed to disarm the four rival armies, partly due to the faint-heartedness of the UN chief, Yasushi Akashi. They left behind a law and order vacuum, and an appetite for corruption engorged on the sudden inflow of UN money into one of the world's poorest economies.

During a recent visit to Cambodia, friends who three years ago had looked forward to the UN as an answer to their country's problems were now disillusioned and fearful for their future. For most people, gold bars and US dollars have become the only insurance for the future; pistols the only insurance for the present.

One afternoon in Phnom Penh, on the busy riverfront street that leads past the Royal Palace to Chinese merchants' shops, two youths on a motorbike stopped beside a middle-aged man on another motorbike. The youth on the pillion shot the man dead without a word of challenge. He dismounted and pushed the man's body away to steal the motorbike. Policemen came racing over, and opened up with automatic rifles, killing one of the robbers. The motorbike cost dollars 800 ( pounds 520).

Such 'kill-and-grab' attacks happen almost every day in a city that is living by the laws of the jungle. Last month the editor of Antarakum, a newspaper which had criticised high-level corruption and nepotism, was beaten to death with a steel bar. Although there is no official curfew any more, houses are locked up and the streets are deserted by nine o'clock at night.

The security situation can only get worse. It costs a mere dollars 1,000 to buy a position as general in the army for would-be profiteers. Foreign governments have refused requests for military equipment from the Cambodian army because underpaid troops are already selling weapons to the Khmer Rouge, their supposed enemies. When the government briefly took the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin in April, generals requisitioned trucks to carry out furniture and other booty, while forcing wounded soldiers to walk out to the nearest hospital. When the Khmer Rouge staged a counter-attack, it surprised no one that the government troops put down their weapons and ran.