WASHINGTON — WHILE the West tries desperately to figure out how it can stop fighting in Yugoslavia without sending in NATO divisions, a less-noticed but equally important test of the world community's ability to keep the peace is occurring in one of the most battered nations on earth: Cambodia.
Last October, the Cambodian government met in Paris with the three rebel groups that have fought it bitterly for a decade and signed a peace agreement brokered by the UN. For perhaps the first time since the Vietnam War, it seemed Cambodians could hope for a brighter future.
But now the most intransigent guerrilla faction, the shadowy Khmer Rouge, is refusing to go along with the peace process and turn in its guns to UN peacekeeping troops. Khmer Rouge officials may, as they say, just be worried about peace plan details. Or they may be intending to fight on. (Peacekeepers coax Khmer Rouge, Page 5).
"The foot-dragging of the Khmer Rouge has raised questions about the future of the settlement," Richard Soloman, outgoing assistant secretary of state for East Asia, told Congress last week.
It's the Khmer Rouge's history that makes many analysts suspicious. This is the same group that, when it controlled the country in the late 1970s, killed upward of a million Cambodians and launched bizarre depopulations of urban areas.
In addition, Khmer Rouge complaints about the peace process don't exactly have the ring of truth.
Khmer Rouge officials have offered two reasons why they are not sending their troops into UN-run disarmament camps.
The first is that the UN hasn't ensured the withdrawal of all Vietnamese forces. (Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978, and installed the current Phnom Penh government.)
But the United States believes that the last Vietnamese troops left the country three years ago. Indeed, the Khmer Rouge has refused to show UN inspectors where the alleged leftover Vietnamese are, according to United States officials.
The Khmer Rouge's second complaint is that too much power remains in government hands, as opposed to those of the Supreme National Council. The council was set up by the 1991 Paris peace agreement, and includes Khmer Rouge representatives. This point has a bit more validity than the first, but only just.
"Overall they're just trying to gain time," says Keith Eirenberg, an Asian studies fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The most dire interpretation of this behavior holds that Khmer Rouge leaders are biding their time while building military strength and continuing to extort millions of dollars from the gem and timber areas under their control.
Another assessment is that they are simply being difficult, while continuing to stress themes of nationalism and anti-government corruption they feel might help them in eventual national elections.
"My own personal judgment is that they are likely ultimately to go along ... but it will be a constant struggle," says Soloman, the new US ambassador to the Philippines.
Caught in the middle of this uncertainty are the 14,000 UN troops already deployed in Cambodia. Like their fellow "blue hats" in Yugoslavia, they're trying to keep peace in a nation where it doesn't yet really exist, where sporadic fighting continues, and the menace of outright war still hangs in the air.
It's a tough spot to be in for soldiers who aren't supposed to fire except in clear cases of self-defense. So far they've inched up mine-infested mud roads in search of elusive Khmer Rouge, had their helicopters mysteriously fired on, and been forcibly prevented from patrolling certain Khmer Rouge strongholds.
The head of the UN effort in Cambodia, Yasushi Akashi of Japan, has asked the UN Security Council to tell him more clearly what he should do next. One former senior UN peacekeeping official, retired Indian Maj. Gen. Indar Jit Rikhye, believes that Mr. Akashi should be allowed to exercise more military muscle.
"We must be able to provide the necessary authority to peacekeepers to enable them to carry out a policing role," says General Rikhye, currently at the US Institute of Peace working on a book about US peacekeeping missions.
The problem extends beyond Cambodia, Rikhye points out. More and more, UN peacekeepers are being asked to help out in messy internal conflicts - situations far less clear-cut than most past blue-hat efforts.
Nevertheless, the world won't walk away from Cambodia if the going gets tough, the Bush administration insists. Officials point to the fact that China, once the Khmer Rouge's main foreign patron, is now behind the peace process.
In June, 33 countries and 13 international organizations met in Tokyo to pledge $880 million toward Cambodian reconstruction.
"You now have the international community ... expressing the determination that the settlement work," Soloman says.