Cambodia: the UN promise fails: On Sunday the people vote, but what matters is the Khmer Rouge, waiting in the wings. Raymond Whitaker reports

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ON Sunday the biggest and most expensive peace operation the United Nations has ever undertaken reaches one of its main goals. The people of Cambodia, a nation devastated by more than 20 years of civil war and slaughter by the Khmer Rouge, will begin voting in their first democratic election for 42 years.

Yet the six days of polling look like falling well short of the hopes encouraged when a peace agreement was signed in Paris in 1991. After promising what always seemed too ambitious - that the election would be held in 'a neutral political environment' - the UN will be fortunate if the week ends with not too many Cambodians and peacekeepers dead.

The Khmer Rouge signed the peace plan, but has not adhered to it. To nobody's great surprise, the movement that killed more than a million Cambodians when it held power in the late Seventies refused to disarm or demobilise its forces. It is boycotting the election, and threatening to do everything possible to disrupt it. The peace process will be more vulnerable next week than at any time since the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac) arrived in early 1992. Strikes on polling stations, or terrorist attacks in Phnom Penh, will have a disproportionate impact.

The Phnom Penh government, installed after Vietnam invaded the country and ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, has welcomed the chance to keep its arms and use them to intimidate voters. Most observers believe it will achieve its aim of pushing the royalist party, Funcinpec (the French initials of the United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Co-operative Cambodia), into second place when the votes are counted.

Confronted by one force that wants to ensure the election is meaningless, and another that wants it just meaningful enough to gain the international recognition it craves, Yasushi Akashi, head of the UN mission in Cambodia, has been reduced to face- saving. 'What we are trying to achieve now,' he says, 'is the minimum acceptable condition for free and fair elections in Cambodia.'

This will leave him able to declare anything short of mayhem a success.

If that seems absurd, it is entirely in keeping with the recent history of Cambodia, which is one of murderous absurdity. Consider who has run the country in the past four decades: Prince Norodom Sihanouk, a womanising, saxophone-playing monarch whose greatest delight was to star in his own movies; an American-backed enigma called Lon Nol, 'a poignant, unconfident figure' according to one writer, who 'burst uncontrollably into tears' several times as he contemplated what was happening to Cambodia; Pol Pot, an inhuman radical who emptied the cities and tried to turn every Cambodian into a peasant, no matter how many died in the attempt; and a youthful former Khmer Rouge guerrilla, Hun Sen, who sided with the country's traditional enemies, the Vietnamese.

Today Lon Nol is dead, Prince Sihanouk is sitting out the election in Peking and Pol Pot is reported to be living under Thai army protection near the town of Trat, close to the Cambodian border and the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin. Only Hun Sen is in the country, preparing to use any means the UN will let him get away with to win an election he never wanted.

The outside world has played a full part in Cambodia's absurdity. The country was destabilised almost casually by the United States as a consequence of its embroilment in Vietnam, then left to its fate under the Khmer Rouge.

The Americans could hardly be expected to applaud when the agents of their humiliation seized Phnom Penh, ejected Pol Pot and announced their intention of staying, but the UN did not have to award the Cambodian seat to a resistance alliance that included the Khmer Rouge, as well as Prince Sihanouk, who conveniently forgot that the movement had held him prisoner in his palace and killed many of his relatives. Nor did Britain's SAS have to help train the alliance to plant the myriad mines that have blighted the countryside, killed thousands and created within Cambodia one of the world's largest populations of cripples and amputees.

In many ways the election is being held to extricate the international community as much as the Cambodians from such absurdity. The end of the Cold War allowed Russia, China and the US to drop their proxy struggles in Cambodia and force the factions to sign the 1991 Paris peace accords. But the agreement has brought new unrealities in its wake.

Because no legitimate government is deemed to exist, the UN has for more than a year had to pretend it could run the country, keeping Hun Sen's administration at arm's length; disarm and demobilise most of the national army as well as the resistance forces; and create a 'neutral political environment' in which to hold elections - not for a new government, but for an assembly that will have three months to draw up a constitution while Untac holds the ring. Of course it has turned out nothing like that.

Mr Akashi's officials, despite the usual quota of UN dead wood, rural violence and the hostility of the local bureaucracy, have scored some successes. They have registered 4.8 million voters (although the operation had to be extended by a month to achieve this), brought back nearly all the 360,000 refugees living in camps in Thailand, and given much of Cambodia the closest semblance of normal life it has experienced in more than 20 years. But the country remains devastated, economically and spiritually, and most aid donors are holding back until they see the outcome of the peace process. This is sure to be unpalatable.

Hun Sen is the most likely winner, although he might have to bring in Funcinpec if it wins, say, more than a third of the vote. He would then be able to demand the international endorsement he has been denied for more than a decade. Prince Sihanouk, having undermined the royalists by keeping his distance, is waiting for the moment to declare that he can save Cambodia where the UN has failed. But he keeps suggesting that this might entail bringing the Khmer Rouge into a government of national reconciliation, with himself at its head - an embarrassment for the international community and unacceptable to Phnom Penh.

Pol Pot's movement, meanwhile, sits along the Thai border, ready to exploit any opportunity and maintaining itself by selling timber and gems to companies run by Thai generals. It proclaims an international conspiracy to confirm the 'Vietnamese puppets' in power, a theme that has struck such a chord in Cambodia that none of its opponents has spoken against the movement's massacres of Vietnamese settlers.

The head of one Western relief agency said he could not see any outcome that did not lead to a resumption of civil war, but a diplomat from one of the Security Council powers brushed this aside. 'The only goal that matters is to get a government we can recognise, which will turn the civil war into an insurgency,' he said. 'Then other countries can give help to make sure the Khmer Rouge never returns to Phnom Penh.'

Perhaps it was unrealistic ever to expect any more. Cambodia is likely to remain a violent theatre of the absurd, its land and resources under threat from larger and more populous neighbours, while others in the region head at varying speeds towards First World standards of prosperity. The UN's main hope is that it does not have to withdraw amid a full-scale resurgence of the war.

The question is whether the organisation can stand the loss of credibility entailed in proclaiming an impossible goal, then declaring that achieving maybe 10 or 20 per cent of its aims is acceptable. It is one that would-be peacekeepers will have to face again before long.

(Photograph omitted)