Pre-poll violence overwhelms UN in Cambodia: A wave of killings threatens the peace process, writes Terry McCarthy from Phnom Penh

YOU DO not stray off the road to Banteay Srei, one of Cambodia's most beautiful temples, 20 miles north of the main complex of ancient monuments at Angkor. If you must relieve yourself, you do it in the road. The signs are red with a white skull and crossbones: 'Beware Mines.'

Campaigning for the planned elections in May starts this week, and the UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, is coming to inspect the process. But the prospects for a peaceful election could not be more bleak: in the latest setback, suspected Khmer Rouge guerrillas last week killed three Bulgarian peace-keepers - the most serious attack yet against the UN presence in Cambodia.

The UN's message is secret ballots and a neutral political environment for the exercise of democracy. But outside the air-conditioned offices of UN bureacrats in Phnom Penh, 'democracy' has a different face. In Banteay Srei district the exercise of democracy includes laying mines, assassinating political rivals and widespread intimidation of the civilian population, as the Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh government fight it out for control of the people.

Last month, the United Nations logged 103 politically or ethnically motivated killings in Cambodia. Sixty-two came in the last week. 'There has been a spiralling of violence in recent weeks,' said Denis McNamara, head of the UN human rights team. 'It has overwhelmed us, and we cannot even investigate all the killings properly. '

Some of the dead are ethnic Vietnamese, killed by the Khmer Rouge. Others are members of the non- Communist Funcinpec party, led by Prince Sihanouk's son. The Phnom Penh government sees Funcinpec as its main rival in the elections (the Khmer Rouge is not taking part).

Even if the killings do not escalate, much of the damage has been done already. In Banteay Srei, as elsewhere, the Phnom Penh party has been ostentatiously taking down the numbers of people's voter registration cards. In theory this is pointless - the election ballot papers will not be identifiable. But for people who have lived most of the past 20 years under Communist rule, the effect is to make them think their vote is traceable. 'It is very difficult,' said Sok Sathay, a locally-hired UN employee, sitting in one of the small UN field offices in Banteay Srei. 'People are afraid of what will happen to them after the elections, when the UN is gone.'

Behind him is a UN promotional poster, in cartoon form, showing soldiers giving up their weapons, listening to human rights seminars, voting and starting a family in a smiling, peaceful society. Nothing could be further from reality. Sadly, the UN and the Cambodians are now working from two entirely different agendas. And the UN agenda runs out of money and people this summer, as the pounds 2bn, 20,000-people operation in Cambodia is due to be wound up.

The road to Banteay Srei passes the other great temples of the 1,000-year- old Khmer empire. The mysterious Bayon, the Ta Prohm, and Angkor Wat, the most majestic of all, with its five towers that have come to symbolise Cambodia itself.

This used to be the home of architects and sculptors of genius, products of one of Asia's great civilisations. Today Angkor's temples house plunderers and thieves, selling carvings and statues to dealers who come across the border from Thailand. The same armed men, from all the factions, who are wrecking the peace plan and the hopes for a political solution to 20 years of war are also despoiling the nation's cultural heritage.

As the statues disappear, the Khmer Rouge is drawing closer to Angkor, and some UN officials think it is planning a hit-and-run attack, possibly against the airport, to scare away tourists and deny the Phnom Penh government the money it earns from the tourist trade.

'We are not even facing a civil war,' said Janos Jelen, the deputy provincial director for the UN in Siem Reap. 'It will just be like people getting drunk, going outside for a fight, and as soon as someone gets a bloody nose they stop and go inside to drink some more. It is a slow wasting away of an entire country.'

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Gabriel Agbonlahor, Alexis Sanchez, Alan Pardew and Graziano Pelle
footballAfter QPR draw, follow Villa vs Arsenal, Newcastle vs Hull and Swansea vs Southampton
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... with this review
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
New Articles
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover Supervisor

£75 - £90 per day + negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Are you a cover supe...

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam