Cambodia's Slim Hope

HOPES for a peaceable settlement in Cambodia are fading. The Vietnamese withdrawal was completed this week, which should have been cause for rejoicing. But with the recent collapse of talks in Paris among the various parties to Cambodia's long conflict, the withdrawal seems, if anything, a prelude to renewed fighting. The chief obstacle to a negotiated peace remains the Khmer Rouge. How do you reach an accommodation with an organization that waged genocide against its own people? Even now, reports filter in of Khmer Rouge guerrillas terrorizing villagers thought to be sympathetic to the government and setting land mines that indiscriminately maim and kill civilians. Little indicates the Khmer Rouge is any more humane now than it ever was.

Amply armed by China, Khmer Rouge forces - estimated at from 25,000 to 45,000 men - are determined to overthrow the regime in Phnom Penh. That government has its own image problems. Its origins go back to the 1978 Vietnamese invasion that sent the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, scurrying back into the jungle. The resistance - the Khmer Rouge plus the militarily insignificant factions of Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann - still view the Phnom Penh regime as Vietnam's surrogate, as do China and the United States.

Under Prime Minister Hun Sen, however, the regime has shown itself capable of both reform at home and compromise at the negotiating table. But Mr. Hun Sen refuses to compromise when it comes to giving the Khmer Rouge a role in any future Cambodian government.

Hun Sen is willing to form ties with the non-communist (i.e., non-Khmer Rouge) resistance, and Hun Sen and Sihanouk in fact seemed on the verge of reconciliation during talks last spring. But the Prince, ever keeping all options open, now appears firmly back in camp with his old partner of necessity, Pol Pot.

Meanwhile, the tools of war flow into Cambodia. Beijing continues to shed AK-47s, mortars, and explosives on the Khmer Rouge. Moscow resupplies the government, and Washington is reportedly moving ahead with arms shipments to the non-communist elements of the resistance.

Hence the scene is set to see whether bullets can clarify what negotiations couldn't.

A more reasonable approach, of course, would be to restart the lapsed peace negotiations. Both Hun Sen and Sihanouk have indicated they would return to the table. For its part, the US should encourage Sihanouk to loosen his Khmer Rouge ties and reach a power-sharing agreement with Hun Sen. To do that, Washington would have to break free of its own reflexive adversion to any government linked to Hanoi. Improved relations between the US and Vietnam could enhance stability throughout the region.

A foundation can still be laid for building national unity within Cambodia and keeping the Khmer Rouge on the outside, where it belongs.

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