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Cambodians Fear Election Violence

July 15, 1998

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) _ Fearing violence in the run-up to July 26 elections, residents in Phnom Penh were stocking up on rice, noodles, salt and other basic commodities Wednesday.

Though the election campaign has been smooth so far, many fear that fighting will erupt in the capital on election day or after the results are made public, with the unrest forcing markets to shut down.

``Not only me _ my friends and neighbors are also buying supplies,″ said Chheng Sor, 42, who bought 330 pounds of rice, three cases of dried noodles and 20 cans of sardines Wednesday. ``We are afraid there will be fighting.″

Memories of last year’s coup _ when opposing forces used tanks, artillery and rocket-propelled grenades in the streets of the capital _ have put people on edge, she said.

Markets were closed for several days and people were shuttered in their homes during the coup, in which Hun Sen ousted his co-premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Hun Sen has called new elections this year to help win legitimacy in the eyes of the international community and foreign aid lost after his violent takeover.

The prince’s FUNCINPEC party won U.N.-sponsored elections in 1993, but Hun Sen forced his way into a coalition by threatening civil war. Ranariddh went into exile after the coup but returned nine months later to participate in the election.

Critics say the government has arranged the elections to favor Hun Sen. But with thousands of people attending campaign rallies held by Ranariddh and other opposition politicians, a victory by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party is not assured.

Ranariddh predicted Wednesday that if his party wins, Hun Sen will arrest him rather than cede power. He said the most dangerous period would be between the election and the announcement of preliminary results Aug. 4.

Hun Sen has said he will step down peacefully if his party loses, but many doubt his intentions.

Ranariddh’s supporters and other opposition leaders have been the targets of violence and homicide. Human rights investigators say many of the killings are political. Arrests are rare.

Recent rumors in Phnom Penh that violence could break out on or after election day have been driving nervous residents to prepare for the worst.

``People are buying one month’s worth of rice,″ said Prum Sokha Ly, a rice seller, adding that sales have tripled in the past few days. ``They are afraid that they will be locked inside their houses again or that markets will shut down.″

Bo Pha, a woman selling salt near the Mekong River, also has seen a boom in her business. ``People worry that there might be war,″ she said, handing a customer a 22-lb. bag.

Others are getting ready to leave Phnom Penh if tensions continue to climb.

Lieng Vuthy, 46, lost his niece in last year’s coup. His wife and son are still recovering from shrapnel wounds, and all of his valuables were looted by Hun Sen’s soldiers after they ousted Ranariddh.

``If things look bad, we will visit my brother in Kompong Chhnang province,″ he said. ``We can’t live through that again.″

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