The continuing battle over Cambodia has taken a significant turn: Cambodia's former leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, has expressed willingness to lead a united front against the 200,000 Vietnamese troops occupying his country.
Prince Sihanouk said Feb. 14 that he would meet Khieu Samphan later this month to discuss such a front. Forming an alliance, he noted, would take months of negotiation. One of his conditions is that noncommunist forces be independent of the Khmer Rouge Army.
If the sometimes-warring forces of the Prince, Khieu Samphan, and another respected politician, Son Sann, can agree on at least a symbolic cooperation, this could breathe new life into the tottering forces waging a guerrilla and diplomatic war against Vietnam and the Soviet Union.
Such a development would also be a victory for China and defeat for the Soviet Union. The Prince decided to work with the Khmer Rouge because "the Chinese refuse to help us unless we accept the Khmer Rouge and form a united front."
(The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia with Chinese backing from 1975 until the Vietnamese invasion of early 1979.)
Prince Sihanouk, who is noted for frequent changes of direction, told telephone interviewers he would welcome either Khmer Rouge chief Khieu Samphan or Son Sann as prime minister of a united front government.
On the other hand, he made his agreement somewhat conditional by hinging it to a set of demands that he said were delivered to the Khmer Rouge embassy in North Korea.
Among these conditions was one that China must give his forces military, financial, and other material assistance similar to that now given to the Khmer Rouge.
After the Vietnamese are driven from his country, all soldiers would be disarmed under international guarantees to neutralize his country by means of an international control commission or peacekeeping force.
The Prince also wants his country renamed Cambodia, as it was under his rule, rather than Kampuchea, as named by the Khmer Rouge and the present government in Phnom Penh.
The Prince appeared to hope that these terms would put pressure on china and the Khmer Rouge, while at the same time justifying withdrawal from a united front if infighting between the partners prevails.
He also wants an acceptance of an international framework to prevent another internationally fueled civil war in the future. One drawback to a united front is fear that the Khmer Rouge would turn on their former collaborators if they ever defeated the Vietnamese.
Another drawback to a united front is fear that outside powers might encourage, not discourage, fighting among the victors in the future.
On the face of it the Prince's new move should strengthen anti-Vietnamese fighters in Cambodia.Unless the initiative breaks down, it could encourage the differing groups to continue to fight and be less fearful of each other. The Khmer Rouge is the leading military force, with about 30,000 men. Followers of Son Sann have a few thousand men, and supporters of the still-popular Sihanouk are, for the most part, not a military force.
If a unified new government emerges, it will be easier for China and the noncommunist countries of Southeast Asia to block Vietnam's move for United Nations recognition of the Heng Samrin government in Phnom Penh.
But historically united fronts have had a tendency to flounder -- or tear themselves apart when victory nears or is obtained.
Most independent observers agree that Vietnam and its surrogate (the Heng Samrin forces) have overwhelming military and political strength.
Interviews with refugees show repeatedly that to the extent Sihanouk is perceived to have "sold out" to the Khmer Rouge, he is no l onger loved by the people who once adored him.