THE LINE FROM GENEVA was that Cambodia was a success story and a model for a new mode of multilateral intervention.
The United Nations took the lead, and the generous nations of the world stepped up with aid, trade and technical expertise—righting the wrongs of the past, picking up a fallen brother, and setting him on the path to a brighter future. But by 1997, the story of Cambodia’s spectacular transition to democracy under international guidance had begun to unravel.
At the time, we were working for The Cambodia Daily, an English-language paper self-consciously modeled on The New York Times, struggling to make sense of the country’s politics for our largely expatriate readership. We struggled with crashing computers, intermittent electricity, broken toilets, but our real challenge was to peel away the layers of deceit, find some semblance of truth, and then figure out how to publish it without getting the paper shut down. On the best days the Daily felt like a college paper in revolutionary times, alternately exhilarating and petty, comic and tragic; it was also addicting.
Although the Khmer Rouge was nearly defunct as a rebel force, reduced to a couple of warlord strongholds near the Thai border, the government coalition was in tatters. Every layer of Cambodian society, from the boy scouts to the prime minister’s office, was unofficially divided between two parties: the royalists who won the 1993 elections and the former communists who refused to step aside. Prince Norodom Ranariddh headed Funcinpec and held the post of first prime minister. The second prime minister, in spite of the election results, was Hun Sen, leader of the Cambodian People’s Party, which remained in control of the police, the justice ministry, and the bulk of the military.
Whether you were a drug runner, a general, a businessman or a monk you had to affiliate—and the smart money was on Hun Sen’s side. The unbalanced coalition was ready to splinter; both parties were stockpiling arms and trying to cut deals with the remaining Khmer Rouge warlords to bolster their own military strength. The second election was scheduled for 1998, and new opposition voices were starting to be heard.
As Easter Sunday approached, the big news in the United States was the thirty-nine Heaven’s Gate cultists in San Diego who committed suicide in the hope of hitching a ride on the Hale-Bopp comet. In Cambodia, it was the new alliance between Hun Sen’s chief rivals.
A month earlier, in preparation for the 1998 elections, Prince Ranariddh had formally allied Funcinpec with a small but growing third party, one of those that Abney and the IRI were advising, the Khmer Nation Party. Its founder was a charismatic French-educated investment banker and reformer named Sam Rainsy. Rainsy’s growing popularity clearly irked Hun Sen, and even then, irking Hun Sen was a risky business. Two years earlier, Hun Sen had recommended that another small opposition party cancel its convention because somebody might throw hand grenades. The next day, somebody did. Thirty-five people were injured, but no arrests were ever made.[n]
Over gin and tonics at the Foreign Correspondents Club or Tiger beers at the Heart of Darkness bar, foreigners used to rank Hun Sen’s opponents in the “assassination sweepstakes.” Rainsy was the odds-on favorite.