Cambodia's Need

Few places have endured more tragedy over the past quarter-century than Cambodia. But the road toward progress in that Southeast Asian nation may be taking some favorable turns. The murderous Khmer Rouge faction, guilty of mass killings in the late 1970s, is disintegrating, and Cambodians now have had another opportunity to cast ballots in a national election.

Both those developments, however, are hedged with problems. Some Khmer Rouge remnants remain holed up in the jungle. They still figure in Cambodian politics, as the controversy surrounding the capture last week of one former Khmer Rouge commander shows. This man was wanted for the abduction and murder of three Western tourists four years ago. His arrest is widely viewed as a ploy by the country's current leader, Hun Sen, who is anxious to court international favor.

Hun Sen lost any such favor last year when he ousted his co-premier, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in a violent coup. Now, Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party appears to have eked out a slim majority of parliamentary seats in the July 26 vote - though Ranariddh and fellow opposition leader Sam Rainsy are demanding recounts.

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Those demands should be meticulously honored, and the question of how parliamentary seats are being allocated should get a thorough airing. The formula was announced suspiciously late in the electoral process. This election, judged fair by most international observers, must have the confidence of Cambodia's people.

A victory by Hun Sen would hardly be surprising, since he controls all the country's media and governmental apparatus. But the opposition's strong showing, even before a recount, indicates that many Cambodians want an alternative to Hun Sen.

If another coalition is formed, as seems probable, it will severely test just how far Hun Sen can distance himself from his authoritarian past as a onetime Khmer Rouge cadre and ally of the North Vietnamese communists. The world must keep a close eye on Cambodia. The US, in particular, has a responsibility to aid democratic development in a country it bombed and invaded during the Vietnam War, setting the stage for later upheavals.

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