UN Representative Works Behind Scenes to Defuse Tensions

For the past week, a top UN of­ficial and diplomats have been working behind the scenes to de­fuse tensions that could lead to vio­lence at the opposition’s sit-in near the National Assembly.

After several uneasy nights last week, the situation threatened to spin out of control Sunday morning when protesters took sledgehammers to the Cambodia-Viet­nam Liberation Monument.

Within 15 minutes, Lakhan Meh­rotra, the UN secretary-general’s personal representative in Cambodia, was urging restraint. During a meeting between Meh­rotra and senior government officials, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen called to instruct the government forces “not to react to the incident in any manner,” Mehrotra said Monday.

Mehrotra then met separately with both Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Mon­day to get more assurances that violence would be avoided at all costs. By Monday afternoon, Mehrotra said he felt reassured.

“Things have reached an equilibrium that one should welcome,” Mehrotra said late Mon­day afternoon, just minutes after Sam Rainsy had left his office at the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana.

But with the Constitutional Coun­cil rejecting the opposition’s appeals, including those for more recounts, no immediate resolution to the stalemate was on the horizon. It appears the issue now is headed toward me­diation by King Norodom Sihanouk.

“You could call it a crisis for Cambodia,” one Asian diplomat said. “Basically, the whole diplomatic community is deeply concerned.” Many diplomats are an­xious for the new government to form and concerned that a random act of violence could occur that would set Cambodia back.

For that reason, diplomats also have been involved in discussions with senior government officials. But Mehrotra has “clearly been the most active person,” a senior diplomat said Monday.

Mehrotra, who arrived in Phnom Penh in June 1997—only a few weeks before the factional fighting that effectively ousted Prince Norodom Ranariddh as first prime minister—reports directly to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Under the 1991 Paris peace accords, the UN was charged with seeing through a peaceful transition to democracy.

Mehrotra met with Prince Ranariddh last Friday, and has brokered other meetings, including a late-night one last week between government officials and the opposition.

That meeting failed, with government officials believing the opposition had agreed to move the sit-in protest to Olympic Stadium, but with Sam Rainsy saying he had agreed only to move it a few meters so roads would not be blocked. Ten­sions were high that night as many thought the government might crack down on the protesters.

The latest crisis came Satur­day, the night before Sun­day’s plans for a new group of pro­tes­ters to meet at the stadium and march to the National As­sem­­bly. “I shared my anxiety with a number of ambassadors on Saturday evening,” Mehrotra said.

Ten minutes after the attack on the Cambodia-Vietnam Libe­ra­tion Monument on Sunday, Meh­rotra said he spoke to Sar Kheng, co-Minister of Interior. “I advised him not to change the government policy of self-restraint.”

Mehrotra said he was meeting with Sar Kheng and another senior government official at 11 am Sunday in an undisclosed location in Phnom Penh, when Hun Sen called and also instructed the government “not to react to the incident in any manner.” That was within an hour of the attack on the monument.

Mehrotra on Monday portrayed Hun Sen as “taking the protest in stride.” Hun Sen told reporters after his Monday meeting in Takh­mau with Mehrotra that protesters could remain for months if they so desired.

But the government also has warned protesters against damaging state property and has urged the opposition to get on with the task of helping form a new coalition government.

Mehrotra said that Cambo­dians should be free to exercise their right of free assembly. As part of that, it’s unrealistic not to expect protesters to advocate a change of leadership, he said.

But he expressed concern about rhetoric that could provoke vio­lence such as the anti-Vietna­mese remarks and the suggestion last week that the US bomb Hun Sen’s military compound.

“If I were leading the protest I would refrain from making such statements,” Mehrotra said. He said Sam Rainsy has “hinted” he will tone down the rhetoric.

US Ambassador Kenneth Quinn expressed his displeasure to Sam Rainsy about the suggestion that a missile at­tack. Yet, in its Monday editions, the pro-Rain­­sy Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience) newspaper featured a front-page photo of a US war plane that the paper said was “reserved to arrest dictators.”

Sam Rainsy has retracted his missile statement, saying he was just trying to make the point he thinks Hun Sen is a terrorist.

Mehrotra declined to say whether he thought the sit-in pro­test was “legal” in the sense of ha­ving proper authorization. But he noted: “When Hun Sen says it can continue, I think it is a kind of au­thorization.” He laughed. “It’s more of a sense of recognizing that people do have the right” to free expression.



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