Cambodia's Hun Sen in Tight Bind

Economic woes, corruption, and resurgent Khmer Rouge threaten government's stability

EMBATTLED Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is in a slow, downward slide. A diplomatic deadlock over a United Nations plan to end Cambodia's 11-year civil war weakens the prime minister. His Vietnam-backed government is squabbling with resistance rivals, supported by the West and China. Meanwhile, the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's strongest guerrilla group, are edging closer to city strongholds.

In Phnom Penh, senior conservatives among the ruling Communists chip away at Hun Sen's liberal reforms aimed at winning Western assistance and recognition - so far unsuccessfully. Aid from the Soviet Union, Vietnam, and other Communist allies dwindles, and economic woes grow.

As the warring Cambodians, pressured by their international patrons, fumble for a settlement, the prime minister struggles to halt the economic and political decline, analysts here say.

``The coming months will be the major test for Hun Sen,'' says a Cambodian associate.

Just a few months ago, this faded, war-beaten capital brightened with prospects for peace. In July, the United States, which for three decades has been caught up in Southeast Asian conflicts, ended its support for the three-party Cambodian resistance. Washington then opened talks with Hanoi, reversing a policy of isolating it in retaliation for the US defeat and Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in the 1970s.

The move sparked new peace efforts and prompted an agreement by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council on a settlement blueprint. The plan calls for the UN to administer Cambodia temporarily, monitor a cease-fire, and supervise elections.

Prodded by the superpowers and regional rivals Vietnam and China, the four Cambodian factions struck a deal on interim power-sharing last month. Progress bogged down, however, over who would control the temporary council that will oversee a run up to national elections.

Political observers say new efforts are under way to bring the four factions back to the negotiating table and hammer out a comprehensive peace settlement.

Still, the Khmer Rouge is playing for time by blocking a major role for Phnom Penh. And Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the Cambodian leader whom Western countries want to lead a new government, remains aloof from the talks and diplomatic skirmishing.

And Hun Sen is wobbling. The leader, a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected from the guerrillas and later was installed in power by Vietnam, has long been dismissed by the West as Hanoi's puppet. He gained some new international stature for compromises that led to the recent Cambodian agreement and direct talks with US officials.

But as worries grow over a fresh Khmer Rouge offensive later this year, Hun Sen needs new diplomatic successes. Those will be harder to come by as the young prime minister is cornered by senior party members skeptical of the UN plan and worried about their post-settlement fortunes, analysts say.

``The dust hasn't settled yet on whether Hun Sen has compromised too much,'' says a Western aid worker in Phnom Penh. ``The party is very powerful and stands to lose a lot if democracy comes to this country.''

In the coming months, observers say, economic collapse is the most imminent threat to Cambodia, impoverished by years of war, Khmer Rouge brutality, and Vietnamese occupation.

For years, the Phnom Penh regime, installed when Vietnam invaded in 1978 to oust the Khmer Rouge, has subsisted on aid from Hanoi, Moscow, and Eastern European countries.

But confronted with their own economic dilemmas, the patrons are cutting back. The Soviet Union, which has been sending about $120 million yearly to the Phnom Penh regime, is phasing out aid, a Soviet diplomat says. In the last year, therefore, Hun Sen has turned to the West and to his Asian neighbors.

On the streets of Phnom Penh, where one-eighth of the country's 8 million people live, signs of the economy's split personality are everywhere. The markets are full of goods from Thailand and Singapore, and well-to-do Cambodians cruise the potholed streets in Mercedes and Japanese compacts. Each evening high-ranking government officials crowd a new luxury hotel completed with Singaporean investment.

For many, however, the economic gains are elusive. The value of the riel, the Cambodian currency, has dropped from about 200 to the dollar a year ago to more than 600 today. The cost of rice has tripled in the past six months, as even government salaries have failed to keep pace with the skyrocketing cost of living.

The cutback in gasoline imports from the Soviet Union and Vietnam has created shortages. As Cambodia has been forced to buy some fuel from Indonesia and Singapore, fuel prices have more than doubled.

``This government won't last unless it does something about the economy,'' says a political associate of Hun Sen.

The government also is being dragged down by widespread corruption. The prime minister recently contended that crooked government officials are being eased out, even as residents complain openly about corrupt members of his own family.

Cambodian and Western analysts worry that government corruption, inertia, and wavering support could once again bring the Khmer Rouge to power. The guerrillas ruled Cambodia in the 1970s and are blamed killing more than 1 million people by execution and starvation.

``Many of the Khmer people are very cynical and have given up on their leaders,'' says a Westerner with extensive experience in Cambodia. ``The frequent breakdown of the peace process has been the spark that sets corruption ablaze.''

Although considered shrewd and pragmatic, Hun Sen has been eclipsed in recent months by old-line Communists with traditional roots.

Differences between Hun Sen and the conservatives came to a head in May, when authorities blocked plans for a new moderate political party and arrested seven senior government and military officials. The government said the measures were taken to cut short a coup attempt.

``The hardship of this government is increasing,'' says a senior diplomat. ``Whatever Hun Sen does has to be with the permission of the party,'' and hardliners control the party.

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