No peace at heart of old Khmer empire: A UN worker tells Raymond Whitaker of war and elections in Cambodia's Angkor Chum district

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE SCENE from Kathrin Brandal's verandah looks peaceful enough. People who have come to Bat Cha Chuk village to trade, and to register for Cambodia's first free election, shelter under trees from the noonday heat. A huge sow, udders swinging, trots across the front lawn of the district headquarters and flops into a muddy pond, followed by her piglets. But then Ms Brandal announces that a shell landed 200 yards away the day before.

Shells fall regularly on Bat Cha Chuk. Ms Brandal, 31, a social worker from Oslo, has more than once had to use the sandbagged bunker dug for her by Bangladeshi peace-keeping troops. At least she can be fairly sure that the Khmer Rouge is doing the shelling. Other questions worry her more, such as who planted the mines which wrecked two United Nations vehicles just outside the village, or the identities of the armed men who came by night into another settlement in Siem Reap province, killing a seven-year-old child and two Cambodian women working as electoral registrars. Just the previous night, someone fired a burst at a UN vehicle in the provincial capital , 30 miles from here, which had been regarded by UN staff as relatively safe. Two Bangladeshi soldiers were injured.

'I always sleep with my walkie- talkie, my torch and my vehicle keys next to my pillow, in case I have to get out immediately,' Ms Brandal said. The Bangladeshis are at the other end of her village, and a UN police detachment a few houses away, but she misses her Norwegian colleague, who went home to calm her family.

All four Cambodian factions, including the Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh government, agreed in Paris 15 months ago to invite the UN to supervise a ceasefire and hold elections. But Bat Cha Chuk shows the reality. Phnom Penh controls the village, and the district headquarters, like official buildings all across Cambodia, has been turned into an office of the newly formed Cambodian People's Party. Other parties are not in evidence - 'Funcinpec (the royalist party of Prince Norodom Sihanouk) tried to set up here,' said Ms Brandal. 'After a week their agent never showed up again. It seems there were threats.'

Seeking a change, Ms Brandal came to Cambodia as a UN volunteer, earning dollars 700 ( pounds 467) per month. She was the first foreigner many villagers had seen: 'They keep touching my skin and hair, and asking why I am so fat.' By European standards she is diminutive, but chronic malnutrition has stunted most Cambodians.

The country's savage divisions have crippled her work. As a district electoral supervisor, her job is to go out into the villages of Angkor Chum to register voters, but the Khmer Rouge, which controls the north of Siem Reap province, is boycotting the election.

She has tried several times to organise a meeting with the movement, but has had no reply bar a warning that the safety of UN workers could not be guaranteed if they ventured into what the Khmer Rouge sees as its territory. 'The UN hasn't wrested control from these factions in Siem Reap,' the provincial electoral chief, Dermot Whelan, admitted. The province has been bitterly contested in every Cambodian conflict for its symbolic value - it contains the greatest achievement of the ancient Khmer empire, the Angkor Wat temple complex, whose silhouette figures on every faction's flag. In the struggle for what Mr Whelan calls 'the soul of Cambodia', ceasefire violations are rife.

But the people of Siem Reap are showing their desire for change, given the chance, despite the difficulty in registering to vote and disillusion with the UN's inability to stop the fighting. If Ms Brandal cannot go to the voters, they come to her, even from Khmer Rouge areas. Angkor Chum district, after lagging behind the rest of the province for most of the registration period, was catching up fast in the final week. The previous day Ms Brandal's registration centre, in the grounds of a Buddhist temple, had added an unprecedented 500 names to its lists. People walked up to 15 miles to register before yesterday's closing date. It will be far easier to disrupt the elections themselves, scheduled for late May, than the registration, which was extended for a month. In coming weeks, Ms Brandal faces new dangers as she implements the next phase of the UN plan - educating Cambodians in the meaning of democracy.

As ox wagons gathered outside the centre, registration cards were handed to proud voters, and old widows - heads shaven according to custom - were watching an election video. Ms Brandal mused: 'Sometimes I think the main value of this operation is simply to show these people that there is another way.'

(Photograph omitted)