CAMBODIA'S war-weary factions sit down to three days of negotiations today in yet another attempt to hammer out a truce. A peace pact has eluded three similar gatherings since 1987. But at least two factors have instilled hope that this parley will produce significant progress toward ending Southeast Asia's 11-year-old civil war.
The first is an Australian proposal which Indonesia's Foreign Minister Ali Alatas dubs ``the central idea'' for the talks.
It calls for installing a transitional United Nation's government in Cambodia, backed by UN peacekeeping forces, to be followed by free elections.
A flurry of diplomatic meetings over the last three months has yielded broad, if generalized, support for the Australian initiative.
Last week, resistance leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk met with Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen and issued their first-ever joint communiqu'e, stating: ``The UN presence at appropriate levels in Cambodia is essential and should be encouraged.''
The two also agreed that a ``supreme national body'' was necessary, without stipulating who would be a part of that body.
Past talks have bogged down over plans for an interim power-sharing government consisting of the Vietnam-backed Hun Sen regime in Phnom Penh and the three guerrilla factions: the Khmer Rouge, the noncommunist forces of the Prince Sihanouk, and the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF).
A UN administration would eliminate the need to include the Khmer Rouge - militarily the strongest resistance group - in a transitional government.
The Marxist group's inclusion has generated staunch objections because it is held responsible for more than 1 million deaths during its 1975-79 rule of Cambodia.
The other factor providing an impetus to these talks comes from changes under way in the policies of the superpowers and their allies, say foreign affairs analysts. The nations providing money and arms to the Cambodian rivals are developing new priorities. Defense budgets are being shaved. Armed forces withdrawn.
Vietnam and the Soviet Union, Hun Sen's two main supporters, would rather spend their funds on development at home. Both nations are also eager to remove obstacles that may hinder their joining in the economic prosperity of the region.
Similarly, the United States, France, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) find supporting the resistance coalition uncomfortable and restrictive, say Western diplomats. Some of the ASEAN states, in particular, are chafing to get in on business opportunities arising from rebuilding Vietnam, and eventually Cambodia.
Discomfort arises from the moral conflict of supporting a coalition that includes the Khmer Rouge. ``Although the Khmer Rouge has intensified a major public relations effort aimed at convincing the world that it has abandoned its past genocidal policies, its authoritarian and brutal treatment of Cambodians under its control continues,'' states the annual report on human rights released last week by the US State Department.
Significantly, China - the main Khmer Rouge backer - has been slowest to warm to a UN administration in Phnom Penh. But the inability of the resistance forces to capture and hold Cambodian urban centers in their offensives of recent months, and the apparent start last week of Phnom Penhs's counteroffensive, may increase China's interest in the plan. As the Khmer Rouge look less viable as a long-term military or political force, Beijing may welcome a face-saving way to extract itself.
Co-hosted by Indonesia and France, the talks will include the ASEAN members (Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei), Laos, Vietnam, the Cambodia factions, and Australia. Australia has been invited as ``a resource nation.''
Australia brings to the talks a 200-page working paper that reportedly includes various administrative options. It also includes the report from a mission of technical experts who visited Cambodia. That ``nuts and bolts'' report suggests staffing requirements and costs for an interim UN government, an election, and peacekeeping forces.
The aim of the Jakarta talks will be to get the Cambodian factions to move from general endorsement of a UN role to agreement on the specific form of administration, and steps leading to its implementation. How far, for example, is the Hun Sen government willing to go in relinquishing control?