- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodians who survived Pol Pot’s “killing fields” and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s tough regime, hope tomorrow’s election will begin an era free of corruption and violence.

Hun Sen is widely expected to be re-elected, but no one is sure who will grab second place or whether a stable coalition can emerge without bloodshed after the votes are counted.

More than 20 parties are in the race to win seats in the 123-member National Assembly, which will create the new government.

“At least Hun Sen has organization, he has contacts with many, many people because he has been in power a long time,” said a businesswoman who sought anonymity. She was referring to Hun Sen’s stint as foreign minister and 18 years as prime minister.

Sam Rainsy is the opposition candidate to watch. He may beat Prince Norodom Ranariddh for second place and make life difficult for Hun Sen, according to foreign observers monitoring the election for the U.S.-based Asia Foundation and several Washington think tanks.

People hoping for Hun Sen’s downfall speculate Sam Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh may be able to overcome their differences and form a coalition government without Hun Sen.

“I like Sam Rainsy because he is [a democrat] and he has no military people in his party. But because of that, he may not be strong enough to provide security after the election,” said a Cambodian magazine publisher who did not want to be identified.

The United States and other Western nations hope a new government will restrict Cambodia’s lawlessness and uproot international criminals based here who smuggle weapons, drugs and counterfeit cash.

China, which has supported Hun Sen with military aid, also would like to retain influence in the country.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party wields control over the army and police and critics denounce him for purportedly ordering the killing of political opponents during his long reign. The prime minister has denied the charges.

During the campaign, Hun Sen’s two main opponents play the race card by echoing Pol Pot’s rhetoric about vampirelike Vietnamese settlers who purportedly steal jobs and create other social problems.

Sam Rainsy, a former finance minister who runs the egocentric Sam Rainsy Party, frequently rails against “yuon” — which some consider a racist term for Vietnamese.

Prince Ranariddh, president of the National Assembly and leader of a minor coalition party known by the French abbreviation Funcinpec, also plays the race card to smear Hun Sen.

“Today we have to stop being afraid to talk about the yuon,” he declared at the start of his campaign. “Funcinpec is the only party not under the control of Vietnam.”

Hun Sen, who served in Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge as a regimental commander, fled to Vietnam in 1977. He returned the next year when a Vietnamese invasion toppled Pol Pot and collaborated to allow the Vietnamese to remain until 1989.

In 1993, the United Nations staged a haphazard election that resulted in Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen sharing power as “co-prime ministers” but in 1997 their two sides battled in Phnom Penh with tanks.

In a 1998 election, marred by violence and corruption, Hun Sen edged ahead of Prince Ranariddh while Sam Rainsy ran third.

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