Indo-China peace proposal: ruse or route to a Cambodia compromise?

The Indo-Chinese states have put forward a peace plan that is likely to become a basis for debate despite a prompt rebuff by Thailand. The proposal comes less than a month after Thai and Vietnamese forces were engaged in direct combat and at a time when controlled tension now prevails along the Thai-Cambodian border.

For this reason, it is not yet certain whether the plan is a ploy at putting the noncommunist Association for Southeast Asian Nations on the defensive or if it is a genuine bid for compromise by Indo-China.

The three Indo-Chinese foreign ministers meeting in vietiane, Laos, announced a plan last weekend that:

* Provides for the creation of a demilitarized zone at the Thai-Cambodian border.

* Calls for cooperation among Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and international aid agencies "to settle the refugee question and lighten Thailand's burden.

* Stipulates that "operations for distribution of international aid to the Khmer people must be carried out on Cambodian soil and not on Thai soil."

* Calls for dialogue between Cambodia and Thailand either at the government level, between unofficial bodies, or through third-country mediation.

The plan also proclaims that an agreement between Bankok and Phnom Penh could be given an international guarantee, which would help insure its continuance. The proposal is drawing mixed reviews. Some analysts see a desire on the part of Vietnam to compromise. A demilitarized zone, they note, would avoid possible armed skirmishes.

In addition, distributing food aid on Cambodian soil could increase the involvement of aid agencies inside the country, helping to ensure that aid goes to civilians rather than soldiers loyal to either Pol Pot or the Heng Samrin regime.

On the other hand, Hanoi's critics could point out that the peace plan merely legitimizes Hanoi's gains in Indo-China. Any deal between Bangkok and Phnom Penh would give the Heng Samrin regime de facto recognition. They also say if the Chinese-supported Pol Pot guerrillas continue their fight, there is no guarantee that Thailand will not be subject to a further exodus of Khmer refugees.

Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila rejected the plan, saying it was a ploy to get Thailand to negotiate with Heng Samrin.

Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda also dismissed it, adding that he wanted the demilitarized zone to be on the Cambodian side of the border.

Although Thailand's reaction has been predictably swift and negative, it is significant that for several days after the Vientiane announcement other ASEAN members -- including hard-line Singapore -- held comment.

In view of the strong anti-Hanoi stance of recent weeks, ASEAN is unlikely to advise Bangkok to talk with the Heng Samrin regime. But some ASEAN officials are leaving the diplomatic door open, if only a little. After all, the Vietnamese incursion into Thailand late last month was a direct response to the unilateral Thai action of sending back Khmer refugees, including known Pol Pot supporters among them. Few foresee another Hanoi push into Thai territory.

Many diplomatic sources also now see Thailand's recent closing of its border with Laos as an overreaction to a minor shooting incident between Laotian troops and a Thai patrol boat June 15.

So Thailand appears caught on a road of growing intransigence with no end. That spells trouble for Bangkok as well as Washington, which is committed to protect Thai territorial integrity.

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