Reliving The Nightmare

Most flee in flimsy houseboats. Others crowd on to buses and trucks, or pile their belongings onto bicycles. Tens of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese are leaving their homes in Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge. Coldblooded attacks have killed more than 100 people in the 18 months since the country's warring factions signed a formal peace agreement. Some 70 of them have died since last month, when guerrillas began to machine-gun floating villages as the people slept. Last week clusters of up to 500 boats inched down the Tonle Sap and Mekong rivers past the capital and on toward the border. "No one thought of leaving before the massacres," said Cambodian-born Nguyen Thi Loi in the tiny cabin of a fishing sampan with her husband, two sisters and mother. "We don't want to go to Vietnam." But Cambodians weren't complaining. "I'm happy to see them leaving," said Thi Da, a university student, as he watched from a bridge. "This is my country."

Xenophobia is woven deeply into Cambodia's fabric. The Khmer people have an abiding fear of their aggressive eastern neighbors, a legacy stretching from Vietnam's 18th-century conquest of the fertile Mekong Delta to its 1978 invasion and decade-long occupation of Cambodia. That's why the Khmer Rouge is making ethnic hatred the linchpin of its opposition to U.N.-sponsored elections May 23. Khmer Rouge political chief Khieu Samphan charges that the U.N. election plan will only "offer our country to Vietnam on a tray." Only traitors are cooperating, his group's broadcasts warn. It's a replay of the "purification" rhetoric that preceded Pol Pot's genocidal purges.

In such a climate, attacks on the 22,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force may have been inevitable. Last month a Khmer Rouge mortar barrage in Siem Reap province killed a Bangladeshi trooper, the first U.N. soldier to die in action. This month Bulgarian peacekeepers in a camp southwest of the capital invited two Khmer Rouge soldiers to dinner; the cadres excused themselves from the table and returned with 10 armed comrades, who executed three of their hosts. Last week Khmer Rouge gunmen in Kampong Thom flagged down a 25-year-old Japanese election official and killed him and his Cambodian interpreter. The United Nations "will not be intimidated," vowed Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali during a 30-hour visit to Phnom Penh last week. "The elections will take place." Others weren't so sure. "If they want to destroy the electoral process, [the Khmer Rouge has] the capability," says one Western diplomat.

Precious little of the peace process remains to save. The Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh government's army have jockeyed for advantage from the moment they signed the treaty. Though fighting has diminished, there still is no cease-fire. Because the Khmer Rouge refused to disarm, so have three other factional armies. Pol Pot's forces have banned U.N. peacekeepers from the 10 to 15 percent of the country they control. Meantime, forces of the central government have begun harassing and even killing opposition candidates within their own territory. Government soldiers also have joined in the anti-Vietnamese pogrom, robbing the refugees as they flee. "The Khmer Rouge tried to kill us, and the Phnom Penh army robbed us," said Nguyen Van Huu, 35, who arrived in the capital last week. "We're broke."

As the first posters representing 20 political parties went up in Phnom Penh last week, it was unclear whether the powerful rivals would permit even a semblance of a free and fair campaign. Several sound trucks toured the city, but few of the hundreds of candidates for seats in a new parliament held rallies, fearing attack. Outside the capital, government operatives undermined the United Nations by telling voters that satellites will document how each of them marks the ballot. And the United Nations doesn't pretend to have enough manpower to protect campaign workers. "The efforts in the next couple of months have to be on giving the Cambodian people a sense that their vote will count, their vote will be secret, they will not suffer retaliation," Winston Lord, the State Department's top Asia hand, said last month. However flawed, elections would be a step toward a real peace in Cambodia. It will be a major accomplishment if they come off at all.