Cambodia has slipped back toward the morass of civil war and brutal factional struggle. The immediate cause is an armed coup staged by co-prime minister Hun Sen against his chief competitor (and uneasy coalition partner) Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
The immediate response has been abhorrence from many of the countries involved in the international effort to get Cambodia back on its feet after one of the century's worst instances of mass murder, followed by years of withering internal warfare.
That $2 billion undertaking brought legions of peacekeepers, mine clearers, advisers, and relief workers to Cambodia in 1991, after the signing of a formal peace accord. A United Nations-supervised election in 1993 gave Prince Ranariddh's royalists a slight edge, but the awkward co-premiership with Hun Sen, who headed a Vietnam-backed government through the 1980s, was agreed to as a way to avoid renewed conflict.
Now Ranariddh is under threat of arrest if he returns to Cambodia, and Hun Sen is trying to lure other royalists into a new coalition. At the same time, his forces are reported to have executed other Ranariddh loyalists. How much of the UN's costly democracy-building can be preserved in this tense environment?
Cambodians have enjoyed increased freedoms since 1993; foreign investment has grown. Such gains are now threatened.
The country's political rivals were to have settled the question of who should rule in a second election next year. Hun Sen promises to go through with that - though his demand that Ranariddh be extradited to face charges casts doubt on his sincerity.
Cambodia's deep antipathies were rekindled by the recent splintering of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas, whose murderous reign in the late '70s took the lives of more than 1 million Cambodians. Hun Sen used Ranariddh's courting of one Khmer Rouge faction as a pretext to oust the co-premier.
Hun Sen and royalists disaffected with Ranariddh may be able to reshape the government and prevent a disastrous slide toward renewed war. But Hun Sen's defiant attitude toward influential outside forces - the US, Japan, China, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - is not helpful. Suspension of aid by the US, Japan, and others was a difficult decision, given Cambodia's poverty. But it should help pressure the new regime to end violence and adhere to its pledge of elections. Cambodia's longsuffering people deserve no less.