PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Cambodia's fragile peace process came to a halt yesterday when the government told leaders of the Khmer Rouge to stay out of the country as major protest demonstrations -- the first since before the Khmer Rouge reign of terror here in the 1970s that took a million lives -- swept through Phnom Penh's streets.
While the demonstrations were occasioned by the expected return of two of the Khmer Rouge's most hated leaders, they seemed more directed yesterday at the Vietnam-backed government.
By the end of the day, Prime Minister Hun Sen was making broadcasts demanding an end to the demonstrations, and the protesters -- mostly students and some workers -- were ignoring him. There were occasional skirmishes with the police and sporadic gunfire in the center of the city.
There were reports that one or two demonstrators were killed last night in a clash with police.
Yesterday's events seemed to underscore the fragility of the peace plan, which many fear could still collapse into a resumption of the civil war.
It was unclear whether the demonstrations had been orchestrated. Demonstrations had been virtually unheard of in Cambodia for more than 16 years of rule by the Khmer Rouge and by the Vietnamese-installed government that came in after the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in 1979.
But with a U.N.-sponsored peace treaty now in the works, and the arrival of a small advance team of civilian and military U.N. representatives, many people now feel safe for the first time in openly challenging the government.
The demonstrations prompted Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan to cancel his return to Phnom Penh yesterday for talks on democratic reforms. Last month, when he returned to the capital, a revenge-seeking mob overran the government villa where he was to live, and he barely escaped the country alive.
Mr. Samphan was a central architect of the policies during the 1970s, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of executions and the deaths of hundreds of thousands more from starvation and disease.
There was conflicting opinion about who is helped more by the demonstrations and the delay in carrying out the peace accord. One theory holds that the Khmer Rouge is waiting for the Hun Sen government to collapse and pave the way for its return. There is already some support for the Khmer Rouge in the countryside, though it is hated in cities like Phnom Penh; the cities were emptied at gunpoint in 1975.
The other theory holds that Hun Sen is capitalizing on the disturbances, using them to keep the Khmer Rouge out of the capital. But such a strategy hinges on not letting the protests gather steam.
In recent days the government has been able to control very little. Street protesters, besides objecting to the reappearence in the city of the Khmer Rouge leaders, have turned to the rampant corruption and economic troubles the country faces.
On Friday, for instance, an angry crowd destroyed the house of Transport and Communications Minister Ros Chhun, charging that the house had been stolen by the government. By the end of the day, the minister was dismissed, along with several others rumored to be profiting greatly from their positions.
"People are getting emboldened by their success and the international attention," a Western diplomat here said yesterday. are just hoping that it does not turn into a disaster."