Cambodian Factions to Discuss UN Peace Plan, Future Leadership

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

MORE pieces of Cambodia's broken puzzle are coming together as the diplomatic pace quickens to end the country's 11-year conflict. On Monday, Cambodia's four warring factions plan to meet in Pattaya, near the Thai capital of Bangkok, just 18 days after their last talks in Jakarta ended with limited progress.

Such a fast turnaround of talks after four years of slow and piecemeal negotiations is viewed by a few Western diplomats as a sign that the conflict's two opposing sponsors, China and Vietnam, may be shifting their positions.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the June 24-25 meeting in Thailand will come just as Vietnam's Communist Party will gather for an important congress in Hanoi. If the congress removes Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach from the Politburo, as some observers predict, it could signal a softening of Vietnam's hard-line support for the regime it installed in Cambodia after its 1978 invasion.

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A shift by Vietnam would mirror China's recent diplomatic retreat on the Cambodia conflict, in which it has been the Khmer Rouge faction's main backer. Beijing said last September it would start to improve ties with Vietnam during the Cambodian settlement process rather than after.

Most analysts say the conflict is rooted in the estrangement that occurred between Vietnam and China during the 1970s.

In a mid-June visit to Thailand, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen stated that China had ceased arms supplies to the Khmer Rouge last August, although Western analysts in Bangkok could not confirm this. The Soviet Union has given no hints of cutting off military support to the current regime in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital.

The talks in Pattaya are also seen as timed to move the peace process along, just before a meeting next month in Paris between the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council on the Cambodia issue.

The five big powers struck a deal last fall to produce the so-called Perm-5 plan, which would disarm the four factions and have the UN hold "free and fair" elections in Cambodia.

That compromise led to the formation of a Supreme National Council made up of 12 members equally divided between the Hanoi-backed regime in Phnom Penh and the coalition of resistance factions led by Prince Norodum Sihanouk, Cambodia's former monarch.

At the Jakarta talks in early June, an agreement was hammered out that Sihanouk would be the council's chairman while Hun Sen, prime minister of the Phnom Penh regime, would be vice chairman. The council, if it ever functions, would help run Cambodia under a UN transitional authority.

The Khmer Rouge, however, opposed Hun Sen as vice chairman. This led to Sihanouk, using his famous tactics of surprise about-faces, to announce that he would not become chairman but only a normal council member as a way to "bridge" all sides.

Sihanouk also said he would visit Phnom Penh this November for one or two months as a way to remind Cambodians that he is "father of the nation." Hun Sen, in return, was invited to visit Sihanouk at his villa in North Korea this July.

After more than a decade's absence and more than two decades since his ouster, Sihanouk's return to Cambodia would be a key test of his lingering popularity against that of the Phnom Penh regime, says a Western diplomat in Bangkok.

"If his popularity is linked to peace in Cambodia, then I'm not afraid at all," Hun Sen told reporters after the June talks.

Despite this apparent rapprochement between the two rivals, Hun Sen and Hanoi opposed the UN plan. They said it serves as a basis for talks, but also cited its lack of a guarantee that the Khmer Rouge would not return to power and repeat the "genocide" of its 1975-78 rule over Cambodia.

France, Japan, and the United States, meanwhile, are using their own separate diplomatic moves on Cambodia.

French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas met in Paris this month with Chea Sim, perhaps the strongest figure in the Phnom Penh regime. And Japan's foreign minister, Taro Nakayama, visited Hanoi at the same time with a promise of massive aid to Vietnam if Phnom Penh shows a more "constructive" attitude.

And the US earlier this year laid out a "road map" for normalizing ties with Hanoi, which included lifting a US embargo against Vietnam once a Cambodia settlement is reached.

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