- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia King Norodom Sihanouk returned to the Cambodian capital this week before important weekend elections as military security was boosted after the slayings of two more political activists.

The revered monarch who reigns but does not govern said it was his duty to return from China to take part in Cambodia's democratic progress.

King Sihanouk left Cambodia for Beijing on Dec. 3 for routine medical treatment. The 79-year-old monarch suffers from colon cancer and diabetes.

"I have a duty to be involved with the spirit of a free, democratic and pluralistic society, especially when it is relevent to the life and people of my country," said King Sihanouk, appearing healthy.

His arrival came as Interior Minister Sar Kheng issued a special decree before Sunday's local district elections, which are the first in 30 years, to boost security.

"The Central Security Office will order the armed forces and all competent authorities to provide protection and security to commune candidates and observers," the order said.

The decree will remain in place after Sunday's vote to prevent tampering with the ballot boxes as they are transported to counting centers.

It was issued a day after two Muslim political activists members of Cambodia's ethnic Cham community and the royalist National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) party were shot dead.

Their deaths brought the number of killings in violence in the run-up to the vote to 21 eight candidates and 13 political activists.

Las Kob, 33, and his wife, Mat Chaes, 38, were the latest victims, gunned down on Monday, said Khim Seila, the deputy governor of western Pursat province.

Las Kob was shot four times with an AK-47 in the neck, chest and hand while returning from a market. His wife was shot twice, in the head and hand. The attackers stole the couple's motorbike, money and jewels.

Khim Seila, from the FUNCINPEC party, said he could not say whether the attack in Pursat was politically motivated or a case of banditry.

"It is a great concern," he said. "Because the attack took place during the electoral campaign [it] could spread as a bad influence on the election."

FUNCINPEC and the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) will contest the elections against the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and five smaller groups.

But human rights groups have increasingly voiced concern over the atmosphere of violence and intimidation, which they say could hinder free and fair elections.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is facing a test of his strength, has vowed to crack down on the violence and arrest those responsible.

But Kassie Neou, vice chairman of the National Election Committee (NEC), said the committee was keeping voters in the dark by denying opposition parties the chance to air their views on local radio and television.

"Indeed, restrictions have been placed. Voters have been and are being denied essential information that would enable them to best exercise their vote," he said in a letter to the Cambodia Daily.

The NEC is an independent body mandated to stage free and fair elections in Cambodia's fledgling democracy.

But opposition parties said the NEC limited their access to national television and radio by banning the broadcasts of "Roundtables," a series of spot programs giving political parties a chance to air their policies.

The programs were scrapped on Monday after a vote by the 10-member board of the NEC. Kassie Neou said he boycotted the vote.

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