Cease-Fire Talks Next Hurdle For Cambodians

GOADED over a major hurdle by international pressure, rival Cambodian leaders now face even tougher bargaining to end their 11-year civil war. In a breakthrough which has given the peace process new momentum, the quarrelsome Cambodians this week accepted a blueprint drawn up by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and agreed to an interim national council to oversee elections.

The council's makeup, worked out at a meeting in Jakarta Monday, had been bitterly disputed by the Phnom Penh government of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the three resistance factions. The issue had repeatedly delayed a two-year diplomatic search to settle Southeast Asia's last major conflict.

What's ahead, diplomats and analysts say, are touchy negotiations on a cease-fire and on the role of the UN, which will administer Cambodia in the election run up.

The Khmer Rouge - the most powerful guerrilla faction, which killed more than 1 million Cambodians in a reign of terror in the 1970s - is also a big question mark.

While the Khmer Rouge went along with the compromise, concern remains that the resurgent rebels will not stop fighting or disarm under the UN plan, political observers say.

``Now, the factions have to sit down and hammer out the details,'' says an Asian diplomat. ``If this one seemed hard, it will be even tougher sledding ahead.''

The breakthrough grew out of months of UN deliberations and a Southeast Asian political landscape reshaped by superpower d'etente and softening regional rivalries.

In July, the United States announced a shift in its Indochina policy, withdrawing recognition of the Cambodian resistance coalition and opening talks with Vietnam.

The Bush administration was forced to change tack by Congressional concern that the Khmer Rouge's tightening military grip on the Cambodian countryside could bring them back to power.

At the same time, archenemies China and Vietnam have pursued contacts to ease longstanding tensions over Cambodia. China, the major patron of the Khmer Rouge, fought a brief war with Vietnam after it invaded Cambodia.

Pressure from the major powers rescued the Jakarta negotiations after bickering among the Cambodian factions delayed and threatened to scuttle the talks.

Mr. Hun Sen, who had threatened to boycott the meeting, showed up at Vietnamese urging following assurances that the US would talk directly to the Phnom Penh regime.

China pressured the Khmer Rouge and other resistance leaders into a compromise on the provisional council, although the mercurial resistance chief, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, stayed away.

Analysts say the Cambodian compromise will further parallel negotiations between the US and Vietnam, talks which Hanoi hopes will lead to normal relations.

``Vietnam needs to be seen in the American view as being a cooperative party in a Cambodian settlement,'' says a Western diplomat. ``This is a step in the right direction.''

The new Cambodian national council - likely to be headed by Prince Sihanouk - will take over the resistance seat at the UN.

However, thorny issues remain. Under the Security Council plan, the UN is slated to play an massive, almost unprecedented role in supervising a cease-fire, organizing elections, and running an entire country temporarily. Officials are still unsure how they will pay for the effort, estimated to cost up to $5 billion.

Hun Sen's commitment also could be tentative, political observers say. The Cambodian leader, who has pursued economic and political reforms, faces a challenge from hard-liners distrustful of the international peace effort and opposed to turning the country over to the UN.

With the Khmer Rouge entrenched in the countryside, both Vietnam and Phnom Penh worry that the guerrilla group could exploit the peace process and return to power.

``Their nightmare is everyone will be disarmed except the Khmer Rouge,'' says a Western diplomat. ``By endorsing [the UN plan], they worry that they might be backing something that in the end will do them in.''

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