The Remaining Right Side of the Buddha
Part 3: The Cooling-off Period Begins
Thursday - May 20, 1993
Heavy fighting was reported the next day between Government soldiers and Khmer Rouge rebels in areas of the northwest where voting was now expected to be all but impossible. The fighting was in the northern provinces of Kompong Thom and Siem Reap with less serious battles in the southern province of Kompong Speu and Kandal. In the province of Siem Reap, four soldiers were reported to have died as they opened a rocket attack on Khmer Rouge positions. The attack was described by UNTAC military observers as an important victory for the Cambodian Army since it drove the rebels out of a large area of the province. Although they claimed that they were not encouraging the fighting, some UNTAC officials appeared relieved that the Cambodian Army was using the days before the election to make an assault on the Khmer Rouge.
Again UNTAC insisted that the fighting would not delay the election although they conceded that it could force officials to shut down scores of polling places. Yasushi Akashi, the UNTAC chief, stated that "this election will be the freest and fairest in Cambodia's recent history" as if that statement held any real meaning.
Later that day, UNTAC received a critical vote of support when Prince Sihanouk announced from his home in Beijing that he would return to Cambodia for the elections. Sihanouk, who was positioning himself to lead a coalition government after the elections, had held out the possibility that he would include the Khmer Rouge in a coalition. His return was thus intended to persuade the Khmer Rouge not to sabotage the elections.
In the evening, Jack and I rode on the back of a motorbike being driven by Andy, a German who was researching and writing a guide book on Cambodia. We were headed for the offices of Church World Services. The folks there had gotten ahold of two documentaries on Cambodia and were screening them that night. We never did find the place.
On the way, Andy made an illegal left turn off of Achar Mean. Cops stationed at the roadside flagged us down and demanded US$20. This was absurd - traffic laws barely existed in Phnom Penh. The cops were underpaid (or maybe not paid at all) and so they stopped those suspected of having money in an attempt to line their pockets. They wanted payment for the infraction on the spot; in cash. We told them we'd be perfectly willing to go to the station to settle this but that we would not give them cash. There were three of them and three of us and suddenly there was a lot of commotion on that corner. Andy waved around his press card and demanded to be taken to the station. Eventually tiring of our lack of cooperation, the cops let us go without paying. As we rode off, I glanced back over my shoulder; they were already flagging down another vehicle.
Back at the Capitol it was the usual scene of travellers and journalists exchanging stories and info and sharing the latest papers from Bangkok. In the Bangkok Post I read that the Prek Kdam ferry - a ferry near to where Jack and I had been the previous day during our trip to Udong - had been closed that same day due to the ambush of a car of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute. One killed and two injured. The ambush occurred in Kompang Cham province and the ferry closing, twenty-three kilometers north of Phnom Penh, cut off Route 6 from the capital. Route 6 was the only link between Phnom Penh and Kompong Cham and Kompong Thom. The five international aid organizations operating in Kompong Cham decided to evacuate the province.
Meanwhile, in the northwest, full-scale battles continued between the Khmer Rouge and government forces. In the southwest fighting forced the closure of a portion of Route 3. Later in the day, UNTAC was for the first time, given the right to take offensive action.
As I sat in the Capitol Restaurant I heard a loud crunching sound and looked up to see a massive garbage truck driving over a motorbike. The bike's owner who may or may not have been on the bike at the time, jumped clear suffering only a gash on one of his feet. The bike was a mess - it had gone completely under the truck's wheel. This was the third accident I'd witnessed in the past 24 hours - the other two each involved two motorbikes.