FOR two decades, Cambodia has been wracked by civil war and the effects of invasion. Industry and agriculture destroyed. Millions killed or made refugees. The history of international peace conferences trying to end wars in Southeast Asia is not good. Geneva 1954, Laos 1961-62, Paris 1973 - each time the diplomats thought (or at least said) they had ended the death and destruction. Each time it continued.
The 19-nation conference on Cambodia that began work in Paris this week offers hope that this pattern will be broken, that peace and reconstruction can at last come to that troubled country. But it will take a long-term commitment from the United Nations, Cambodia's neighbors, and more powerful countries with interests in the region to make it happen. And most of all, it will take willingness to relinquish power in exchange for peace by the Cambodian factions that so far have refused to do so.
Initial steps taken by the international conference are good: A UN mission to lay the groundwork for overseeing the late-September withdrawal of Vietnamese troops and a cease-fire among warring factions; and four working commissions to deal with monitoring, international guarantees, refugees and reconstruction, and Cambodia's political problems.
Those political problems are considerable. The current government was installed by Vietnam and its invading army. There are three resistance factions, the strongest of which - the Khmer Rouge - is well-known for its murderous activities in the late 1970s. The US backs the non-communist resistance; the Soviet Union supports the Vietnamese-controlled government and its army; and China continues to supply the Khmer Rouge with weapons.
From that knotty mix, a coalition government must somehow emerge. It may require UN peacekeepers. It will certainly take time and considerable diplomatic effort. But first, the fighting must stop, and that will be up to Cambodians themselves. For as Canadian Foreign Minister Joe Clark said in Paris this week, for an international peacekeeping effort to succeed ``there has to be a peace to keep.''