CAMBODIA's ever changeable Prince Norodom Sihanouk has taken an important step in moving his country toward settlement of its 10-year civil war. In Jakarta last week, the prince did some serious negotiating with Hun Sen, Cambodia's present prime minister and head of what critics call Vietnam's ``puppet regime'' in Phnom Penh. Hun Sen, who is acquiring stature as a shrewd statesman, laid the groundwork for progress by agreeing to change Cambodia's flag to include the prince's royal blue, shifting the country's name from People's Republic of Kampuchea to the State of Cambodia, and recognizing Buddhism as the official religion. The prime minister has also made free-market economic reforms.
Noting these changes, Sihanouk was open to Hun Sen's invitation to return to Cambodia as head of state - provided that post be made substantive and not merely ceremonial. He and Hun Sen also arrived at basic agreement over international monitoring of the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, to be completed by Sept. 30.
While the diplomatic chemistry between these two has turned benevolent, however, some crucial issues remain unresolved. Sihanouk got a lot from Hun Sen, but he needs more. For instance, he wants a firm commitment to multiparty politics. Hun Sen appears ready to go along with this.
But when it comes to who will participate in such politics, they part ways over Cambodia's notorious bad guys, the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk has been in awkward alliance with the Khmer Rouge against Vietnam and the Phnom Penh government. While it's doubtful he wants to share power with the Khmer Rouge, he feels they should be offered a role in a new government - on the gamble that they'll reject it. Then the Khmer Rouge would truly be isolated and even China, long their arms supplier, would forsake them. Hun Sen, formerly of the Khmer Rouge, isn't willing to make such an offer. The two will discuss this issue further in Paris July 24.
The Khmer Rouge, meanwhile, has refused to go along with a cease-fire agreed to by Sihanouk and Hun Sen, perhaps hastening its own isolation.
Cambodia is sure to come up during next week's Sino-Soviet summit. China backs Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge; the Soviets support Vietnam and Hun Sen. The communist giants could conceivably work a compromise of their own, joining forces behind the new Sihanouk-Hun Sen accord.
Other factors in the diplomatic swirl enveloping Cambodia include warming relations between Thailand and Hun Sen's government. The Thais could play a key role in holding the Khmer Rouge in check. Washington, meanwhile, is hustling to formulate a response to events in Indochina. One recently discussed option, military aid for Sihanouk's forces, could do more harm than good.
Above all, what Cambodia needs is a stable, democratic government that will allow its people to express themselves culturally and economically. The Sihanouk-Hun Sen dialogue hints that this goal may be in reach.