Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who is visiting the United States at present, may still represent the best chance for an independent, neutral, democratic Cambodia.
This is the private consensus here of Western officials as well as of leading third-world diplomats.
Not surprisingly, it is also the firmly held opinion of Prince Sihanouk.
His immediate prospects for returning to power appear to be dim. Today, the former Cambodian ruler cuts a lonely figure on the international scene. But, at the same time, there are indications of his continuing popularity with his own people.
In the course of an interview, he reminded this reporter of the similarity between his present situation and that of Gen. Charles de Gaulle in London during World War II.
At the time, General de Gaulle was challenging Marshall Henri Petain's leadership against all odds, and was also stubbornly refusing to bow to the wishes of his powerful allies, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.
* China fully supports the Pol Pot-Yeng Sary "gang," which leads the Khmer Rouge.
* The United States supports China, and thus implicitly supports the Khmer Rouge.
* France does not want to get involved and is wary of antagonizing the Soviet Union and Vietnam.
* Thailand refuses to grant him permission to visit his compatriots in that country, thus showing its bias in favor of the Khmer Rouge.
High American officials have urged Mr. Sihanouk in Washington to make his peace with the Chinese. The Chinese insist that he patch things up with the Khmer Rouge and join with them in a common front against the Vietnamese. This, Prince Sihanouk says, he will never do.
For while the Vietnamese occupation and the Heng Samarin "puppet regime" are unacceptable to him, the Khmer Rouge represent an even greater evil, "a madness comparable only to Hitler's." "Besides," he says, "I have already experienced fellow-traveling with the Khmer Rouge. What good can come from the pot of clay [Prince Sihanouk] rubbing against the pot of iron [Khmer Rouge]?"
At the present time Prince Sihanouk gives priority to the humanitarian aspect of the Cambodian problem over all political considerations. However, with regard to the future, he believes that time is working in his favor.
"China, Thailand, Vietnam, the United States, and the Soviet Union will come to the conclusion that the armed conflict in Cambodia is too costly and too dangerous to the stability of the area.A stalemate will develop and both sides will discover the merits of the Sihanouk solution.'" The so-called Sihanouk solution calls for:
* The withdrawal of Vietnamese forces to be replaced by UN observer forces.
* Internationally controlled elections.
* The guaranteeing of Cambodia's neutrality by the international community.
Meanwhile, Prince Sihanouk is busy gathering political support from his compatriots. His Confederation of Khmer Nationalists now numbers 10,000 Cambodians who live in France and a roughly equal number of Cambodians in the United States.
Some 1,300 former Cambodian officers have volunteered to fight under his command inside Cambodia. However, the soldiers of the guerrilla force he plans to create can only be recruited among the tens of thousands of Cambodian refugees in Thailand. Bangkok has so far turned a deaf ear to his request for a visa.
Next year, Prince Sihanouk will visit Singapore and hopes to enlist Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's support in persuading the Thais to allow him into their country. A number of emissaries from the Cambodian refugees inside Thailand have come to him and informed him of the willingness of thousands of Cambodian exiles to stand behind him. At present he is touring the United States.
"The Americans have tried the corrupt regime of Lon Nol. It did not work. The Chinese supported Pol Pot. He turned out to be a monster. The Vietnamese are now banking on Heng Samrin, a mere stooge. He will fail. When all these 'cards' have been played to no avail by the superpowers and their proxies, and when the Cambodian people have a chance to choose their leaders, they will elect Sihanouk," Prince Sihanouk believes.