Cambodian Factions Step Back From Brink of Renewed Civil War

Signs of compromise from Khmer Rouge are breathing new life into peace process

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE royalist party and the onetime Communist regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen have set aside hostilities from 13 years of civil war to move toward uniting Cambodia, agreeing on an interim government and pressuring Khmer Rouge guerrillas to rejoin the peace process.

The 120-member constituent assembly elected in May was expected to approve the provisional government later this week, government and royalist party officials say. If the list of ministers is accepted, it would be one of several incremental steps to avert a possible breakdown in security amid the political feuding that followed the country's first multiparty balloting in 21 years.

The agreement on the interim government came as all the major wartime foes - including the radical Khmer Rouge - signaled willingness to compromise, government officials say. This would breathe new life into the United Nations-brokered peace plan for Cambodia that has neared collapse several times.

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The moves toward unity also have extended to the military. Leaders of the Army under command of the Hun Sen government, and of two armies that had battled to oust him, agreed in early June to work together to form a unified fighting force.

Leaders of the three Cambodian armies, acting under UN auspices, also have invited the Khmer Rouge to join a unified military, UN spokesman Michael Williams said last week. That is a major step toward reconciliation that underscores the importance Cambodian leaders place on trying to entice the Khmer Rouge back into the peace process. The radical communist movement, which ruled Cambodia in the late 1970s, is blamed for the deaths of at least 1 million Cambodians.

The military leaders did not give the UN specific conditions for the Khmer Rouge to meet, though they would likely demand that the guerrillas give up control of the 20 percent of the country's territory now in Khmer Rouge-ruled zones.

On Wednesday, Khmer Rouge guerrillas in two northwestern Cambodian provinces - Siem Reap and Banteay Meanchay - told UN peacekeeping troops that they wanted to join the country's armed forces, UN military spokesman Lt. Col. John Weiland said. The Khmer Rouge representatives also said they would open their territory to the international peacekeepers.

Even officials with Hun Sen's government who had sworn there could be no legitimate place in Cambodian politics for the Khmer Rouge are taking a more conciliatory approach.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith says the Cambodian People's Party would agree to include the Khmer Rouge in the armed forces if the group showed "positive signs for national reconciliation."

Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh - head of the royalist party known by the acronym FUNCINPEC and son of head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk - will serve as copresidents in the transitional leadership until the newly elected assembly writes a constitution and forms a new government. They also will share leadership of the powerful Defense and Interior ministries.

Prince Sihanouk, already given unspecified powers as head of state by the assembly, will serve as commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

FUNCINPEC and the Cambodian People's Party each will have 45 percent of ministry posts in the interim government, with 10 percent for the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party led by former Prime Minister Son Sann.

The Cambodian People's Party dropped its threat to refuse to give up power because of alleged election irregularities, saying it feared continued protests would hurt the country's chances of getting international aid.

For his part, Prince Ranariddh agreed to serve in the interim government alongside Hun Sen after initially responding harshly to the possibility and chastising the prime minister for politically linked violence by government-controlled forces against FUNCINPEC supporters.

FUNCINPEC finished a surprising winner in the May elections, gaining 58 seats in the assembly to Hun Sen's 51.

The reconciliation overtures sent Khmer Rouge leaders scrambling to try to prevent being shut out of Cambodian politics after the guerrillas had tried to undermine the UN-organized elections and derail the peace process.

Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan was quoted several times on the guerrillas' radio station as saying his group would accept an advisory role in Phnom Penh, but no formal offer had been made.

Khmer Rouge leaders were preparing to come to Phnom Penh this week, government officials say, to discuss the group's formal return to the capital. The guerrilla group had closed its office here April 13, when Khmer Rouge leaders denounced the UN mission as a sham and fled to their jungle bases in northwestern Cambodia.

The Hun Sen government and a three-faction opposition coalition, including FUNCINPEC and the Khmer Rouge, signed a UN-crafted peace plan in 1991. But the Khmer Rouge pulled out of the accord and boycotted the elections intended to usher in a new era of peace and democracy in Cambodia.

"They tried to discredit the elections but only succeeded in discrediting themselves," said a Phnom Penh-based Western diplomat. "The Khmer Rouge is more isolated than ever and were seen to be much weaker militarily than many had thought, so they've lost politically and militarily."

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