Coup victor's round-up strikes fear in Cambodia

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The Independent Online
Tearful and exhausted, a mother waves to her three-year-old son as he boards a flight from his fractured homeland. For the moment at least, she is staying on alone to help others threatened by Cambodia's new regime to leave the country.

For her own safety, this local aid worker and human rights activist asked not to be identified. "The situation for anyone who has been critical of Hun Sen in the past is extremely dangerous right now," she says, her glazed, bloodshot eyes straining after a week of anxiety and sleepless nights.

Over recent days, since an effective coup d'etat swept Hun Sen, Cambodia's "second" joint prime minister, into sole power, thousands have been living in fear.

"Hundreds of people have already been arrested in the provinces, all of them opposition figures, independent human rights activists and journalists who the new regime sees as a threat," she says.

Her figures, confirmed by United Nations officials in Phnom Penh, are disturbing. In the picturesque north-western province of Siem Reap, home to the ancient Khmer temples of Angkor Wat, at least 100 people have been detained, she says. Most are civil servants affiliated with Funcinpec, the political party of the ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

A further 31 people are being held in eastern Preay Veng, 20 more in Khom Pong Speu province.

Across the country an estimated 300 people have disappeared from their homes in the past five days, including a prominent Funcinpec governor, Serey Mondul. According to human rights workers, they are being held by armed cadres of Hun Sen's Communist People's Party (CPP), which is rooting out its political opponents.

"The fighting has mostly stopped, the looting has ended, but there is widespread fear on the streets," said David Hawk, head of the United Nations Centre for Human Rights in Cambodia.

Hun Sen has invited his opponents to join a new coalition government and has been publicly assuring them of their safety. But the executions earlier this week of two senior Funcinpec officials has intimidated others and driven most into hiding.

There are unconfirmed reports of other killings: human rights groups are expressing particular concern about the fate of some 150 people believed to have been detained in the northern province of Kampal. And aid workers are escorting an increasing number of opposition figures onto planes out of the country.

In Washington, the State Department has sent what it says is a "clear signal" of disapproval to Hun Sen: it is suspending aid to Cambodia for a period of 30 days. Japan and Canada have followed suit. But Hun Sen has remained defiant, perhaps gambling that the international community at large may stand back from Cambodia and allow his heavy-handed rule.

"Many governments recognise that the two-headed coalition of Ranariddh and Hun Sen did not work," says Raoul Jennar, a political analyst living in Phnom Penh. "Despite the fact that he is brutal, diplomats, the World Bank, and businessmen all recognise that Hun Sen is a man with whom they can operate.

"Much now depends on how Hun Sen can portray his government to the world. If he can convene the National Assembly, pass laws, and promise to hold elections next year, I think the majority of countries - while condemning his actions - will accept him," he says.

But for the moment, more nations are evacuating their citizens and expatriates are leaving in their thousands. Bert Hoak, the American proprietor of the travellers' meeting-place Bert's Books, packs his tomes on Cambodian culture and travel in readiness for his own journey to the airport.

His imminent departure is a measure of the uncertainty that is gripping many here. "I will not work in a country with this kind of government. I refuse to keep my family in an environment of fear, where there is no democracy and no human rights," he says angrily.

His wife, an ethnic Khmer, is saying her goodbyes to the family she is to leave behind to face what many believe could be Cambodia's new dictatorship.

Yesterday, the Australian air force picked up its country's citizens, and those of Canada, as hundreds of dismayed Cambodian faces pressed hard against the mesh fences which surround the runway.

"You are abandoning us again," shouted one man, an elderly taxi tout standing at the bent steel gates near the devastated terminal. But few of those departing heard his call.