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Grim future for democrats in Cambodia

Two weeks of sleepless nights have visibly shaken Lao Mong Hay. The Phnom Penh offices of his Khmer Institute of Democracy had to close during Cambodia's latest bout of political violence, which ushered in Hun Sen as the sole effective ruler. Now the institute's doors are open once again but the mood among its researchers and librarians is grim.

"Our situation is bleak," says Dr Lao. "Hun Sen's gamble with democracy and the world looks like it will pay off and the losers are the people of Cambodia. Our hopes for peace, security and freedom are shattered." Dr Lao has charted his country's UN-sponsored experiment with democracy from its inception at talks in Paris back in the 1980s. Accountability and freedom were always tall orders for a country bred on violence but the international community, he says, looks poised to abandon all hopes of true democracy in Cambodia in deference to Hun Sen, a man whom, at great risk, he labels "Cambodia's new dictator".

Earlier this month forces loyal to "second" prime minister Hun Sen ousted his rival and senior co-premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, accusing him of forging an illegal pact with the hated Khmer Rouge guerrillas. In two days' fighting in Phnom Penh, 58 people, mostly civilians, died. Japan, the US and Germany suspended aid programmes; thousands of foreigners were evacuated or advised to leave in a gesture of diplomatic protest. Although fighting continues in the remote north-western jungles, the situation has calmed over much of the country. Prince Ranariddh fled into exile and the militias of Hun Sen are tightening their grip amid reports of arrests and killings. In the rural provinces and in towns across the country, signs of Prince Ranariddh's Funcinpec political party have been ripped down by troops. Party slogans have been painted over with broad strokes of black paint and replaced with new messages. "Royalist Traitors," read graffiti scrawled across the broken walls of one erstwhile Funcinpec party office in Phnom Penh.

But the initial anger of the world's democracies has been replaced by a cynical acceptance of the country's new and authoritarian sole power. Hun Sen added a veneer of legitimacy to his takeover by naming the Funcinpec Foreign Minister, Ung Huot, to replace his former boss as co-premier.

The reason for the attitude appears to be one of pragmatism. The UN-forged coalition between Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh failed, and Cambodia, plagued by rivalry between the two co-premiers, was racked by corruption and all but paralysed for the past 18 months.

"At least now things might get done, laws might get passed, and the country might get moving again," said a diplomat.

But the stance is hardly justifiable in the face of the country's collective terror at the prospect of a return to life without the freedoms promised in the four years since its imperfect, but fledgling, democracy lurched into life.