THIS year could be the year of Cambodia. After 10 years of Vietnamese occupation, civil war, and earlier mass executions by the Khmer Rouge, Washington observers agree the prospects for a solution are the best ever. ``There are very good possibilities for the year ahead,'' says former US Sen. Dick Clark, who directs the Indochina Policy Forum. ``Two and a half years ago when I visited the region, I saw no movement or hope of it,'' Mr. Clark says.
But he adds, ``We've seen in the last few months a kind of coming together of various events that put the contributing players in a position to resolve this.''
Top United States officials agree.
``The prospects for a political settlement look reasonably good,'' a senior administration official says, ``because it's a shared objective of a whole lot of key parties - China, the Soviet Union, ASEAN [Association of Southeast Asian Nations], ourselves, and a majority of the Cambodian factions. Vietnam, too, recognizes the status quo no longer serves its interests.''
Washington is buoyed by a number of recent developments, including:
The visit of Thailand's foreign minister to Vietnam last week - the first in 12 years. Vietnam reportedly showed flexibility on a troop withdrawal timetable and possible international supervision of the pullout and a political transition.
Last weekend's talks in Peking between a senior Vietnamese diplomat and Chinese officials. These are the first direct Sino-Vietnamese talks since 1980, and may pave the way for discussions at the foreign ministerial level.
The Jan. 6 announcement by Vietnam and the pro-Vietnamese Cambodian regime that the remaining Vietnamese troops could be withdrawn from Cambodia by September, if a political solution can be worked out.
Continued signs of a blooming Sino-Soviet dialogue on Cambodia, which US officials see as an ``absolutely key'' element on moving the peace process forward. The Soviet foreign minister is slated to visit Peking to continue discussions in the next month.
According to one ranking US official, ``It is of such small stones that pyramids are built.'' But, the official adds, ``We have no real sense yet when or if this might come together.... The biggest unknown in hammering out a political settlement'' is still the real intentions of Vietnam and its Cambodian allies. ``The Vietnamese are capable of being very stubborn when their security interests are at stake,'' he adds.
A Cambodia peace process is expected to be complicated. At least three channels will set the stage in coming months: Sino-Soviet bilateral talks, direct talks among the Cambodian factions, and ASEAN-sponsored talks.
The last talks will be in a forum called the Jakarta Informal Meeting (JIM), which includes ASEAN members Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and, Thailand, as well as Vietnam, Laos, and the Cambodian parties. ASEAN is trying to organize a ministerial-level JIM meeting for February. If progress is made in these forums, a broader conference might be called to provide international guarantees for a settlement and subsequent reconstruction aid for Cambodia. The UN would probably be involved, perhaps providing peacekeeping forces.
Washington has an important but not a leading role to play in this process, say Senator Clark and the bipartisan group of specialists and policymakers he bought together to examine the options for the Bush administration. ``At this juncture, our group feels the US shouldn't move to the central negotiating position to try to resolve the matter. But the process has matured to the point where it is most important to be actively supportive of ASEAN and Prince [Norodom] Sihanouk,'' the nominal leader of the anti-Vietnamese coalition that holds Cambodia's seat at the UN.
Administration specialists say more active US involvement is likely. The US plans to increase assistance to the noncommunist resistance this year. Additional aid from the US and others, they say, should strengthen Sihanouk's ability to participate effectively in a political settlement. Currently, the Khmer Rouge and the pro-Vietnamese government in Phnom Penh are militarily superior to the noncommunist forces.
The Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge are held accountable for hundreds of thousands of deaths from 1975 to 1979, when they ruled Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge were ousted by invading Vietnamese forces in 1979 and now command an anti-Hanoi guerrilla force of about 35,000.
As negotiations progress, the senior official says, Washington will ``be particularly attentive'' to ensure effective measures are taken to control the Khmer Rouge.
The major US lever in this process is the prospect of normal relations with an economically needy Vietnam. Once Vietnam pulls out of Cambodia and a settlement is in place, ``we are fully prepared to normalize relations,'' the official says. In the meantime, cooperation on humanitarian issues, including POW-MIAs, should go ahead, he says, ``so when a full relationship is possible it can eventually flourish.''
Officials predict the new administration will stick with this policy. Washington is still suspicious of Vietnam's real intentions. It does not believe that Hanoi met its commitment to withdraw 50,000 troops from Cambodia by Dec. 31. Rather than the 50,000 troops which Vietnam says remain, US intelligence estimates say about 90,000 are still in Cambodia.
US officials say they are pleased Vietnam is pulling troops out, but they are seeking a detailed and verifiable withdrawal timetable. They would also like Hanoi to accept substantial international guarantees and oversight on an eventual settlement.
On the humanitarian front, Washington is ``very pleased'' with the ''quite extraordinary'' efforts Vietnam has taken over the last two months, a senior US specialist says.
In December, four joint excavation teams were in the field and Vietnam turned over 38 sets of remains - the largest one-time return ever. Five US teams will fly to Hanoi this month for a 10-day investigative operation, and Vietnam has promised to turn over 23 remains on Jan. 23.