Cambodia's former and possibly future leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, received Washington's blessing last week. But Prince Sihanouk, who heads Cambodia's anti-Vietnamese resistance coalition, created a stir with some purposely ambiguous comments to the press during his four-day US visit.
The Prince broadly hinted that he was receiving significant lethal aid from the United States. And he gave a fairly pessimistic prognosis for near-term progress on a solution to the Cambodian conflict, arguing that the other main parties were stuck in their positions.
Sihanouk specifically complained that China had cut off aid to him, while continuing to fund the Khmer Rouge. The communist Khmer Rouge, which participates in his anti-Vietnamese coalition, he added, are attacking his forces.
``This is typical Sihanouk, astounding friends and enemies alike,'' summed up one US Asia specialist.
US officials deny that Washington is providing lethal assistance. They say US material aid was hardly discussed with the Prince.
Nevertheless, informed administration sources say the Prince is now receiving new lethal assistance from non-US sources.
US specialists on the region suggest that the wily Prince was using his public forum in Washington to send messages to China, Vietnam, and the Khmer Rouge.
Sihanouk, they say, wanted to demonstrate his growing strength and to put pressure on others to cooperate with him. Thus the need to highlight his increasing military clout and international political support.
Sihanouk clearly wanted to flag that his ability to move toward a settlement is ``tied up in knots'' by China's opposition to reining in the Khmer Rouge, says one specialist. China's foreign minister told the Monitor recently his country continues to aid Sihanouk's forces militarily. But informed US sources say China has apparently cut direct personal aid to the Prince because of his criticisms of the Khmer Rouge.
Hope of progress on the long-festering Cambodian situation has been generated over the last six months by signs that Vietnam may be willing to withdraw its 100,000 to 120,000 troops from Cambodia and seek a political reconciliation there. This prospect, in turn, fueled fears that the notorious Khmer Rouge would sweep back to power, if Vietnam pulled out precipitously.
Sihanouk and his allies, led by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), are facing tough challenges in the weeks ahead. At the UN, they are lobbying for a new resolution designed to maintain international pressure on Vietnam to pull out, and simultaneously create pressure to prevent the Khmer Rouge. - still the most powerful of the Cambodian factions - from returning to power.
In early November, Sihanouk is to have another round of talks with the Prime Minister of the current pro-Vietnamese regime in Cambodia. ASEAN, Cambodian, and Vietnamese officials are sitting down this week at the working-group level to look at what steps to take next in moving toward a political solution.
President Reagan and Secretary of State George Shultz served as hosts to the Prince last week in an effort to boost his diplomatic prestige for these tests and to compare notes on what will happen next. Former Cambodian Prime Minister Son Sann, who heads the smaller noncommunist faction in Sihanouk's anti-Vietnamese coalition, was also in Washington for consultations.
The US agrees with ASEAN that now is the time to start bolstering Sihanouk and his noncommunist allies both politically and operationally, says a senior ASEAN foreign minister.
But US officials firmly deny that Washington is providing lethal aid to the noncommunist resistance forces in Cambodia. They admit providing a small amount of nonlethal assistance, including training, and say the administration is seeking to boost that assistance. The only question, officials say, is how much of a boost can be worked out with Congress.
There are unconfirmed press reports of a larger, but still nonlethal, covert aid program.
Nevertheless, informed administration sources say Sihanouk has begun receiving more lethal aid in recent months. This is from non-US sources, but with US knowledge. The shared goal, say ASEAN officials, is to start to level the playing field in Cambodia so if the Vietnamese are serious about pulling out, the noncommunist forces can hold their own against the Khmer Rouge.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was explicit during his recent visit to New York. Though Sihanouk's forces have grown to nearly 20,000 over the past year, he said, they are no match for the Khmer Rouge. ``We have to work at it ... giving them more training, arms and money.''
Mr. Mahatir said with enough assistance, Sihanouk's forces could equal the Khmer Rouge's 35,000 in two years, and in five years or so Sihanouk might have the upper hand. In the interim, the minister said only a United Nations peacekeeping force could prevent a return to civil war and a possible repetition of the brutal Khmer Rouge rule, once the Vietnamese leave.