AS Heng Lim Hak sees it, peace in Cambodia pivots on Prince Norodom Sihanouk.Mr. Heng says he fled his village for Thailand earlier this year to escape Army recruiters of the Phnom Penh regime. Among his limited belongings in a border refugee camp inside Thailand is a picture of the deposed ruler. "All the people in my village have photos. They all want him in Cambodia," says Heng, who lives in a camp not controlled by Sihanouk's faction. After years of political vacillation, Cambodia's charismatic former monarch has taken center stage in the accelerating diplomacy to end the country's 12-year civil war. Not only did Sihanouk help broker recent peace breakthroughs among Cambodia's four bickering factions, he has also made his authority crucial to any future peacetime government, analysts say. Sihanouk is viewed by the United States and other Western countries as a check on reconciled communist rivals China and Vietnam and their efforts to cut a deal on Cambodia's future, political observers say. "Everybody wants a piece of Sihanouk. He has a lot of pull as the symbol of Cambodia," says a Western diplomat. "Sihanouk realized he was being cut out as China and Vietnam move closer to a bilateral deal. And he's not the kind of person to remain out of the game." Later this month, negotiations resume between the Phnom Penh regime, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen and supported by Vietnam, and the three-party resistance coalition headed by Sihanouk, but dominated by the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge.
UN plan on the table On the agenda will be the comprehensive peace plan drawn up by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The controversial plan calls for an interim UN administration and international monitoring of a cease-fire, disarmament, and elections. At a June meeting in the Thai resort city of Pattaya, the Cambodians, coached by Sihanouk, hurdled smaller but thorny issues. They included a cease-fire agreement, an end of arms imports, and relocation of the symbolic interim council, comprised of all the factions, to Phnom Penh later this year. Earlier, Sihanouk finessed a dispute over the council leadership which had blocked diplomatic progress for months. At a meeting in Beijing last month, the fractious Cambodians chose Sihanouk as the country's leader. Diplomats and Sihanouk's officials say diplomatic gains emerged only in tandem with warming ties between China and Vietnam, whose centuries-old rivalry has locked them into opposing sides of Cambodia's civil war. The two countries have drawn together in the wake of collapsing communism in Eastern Europe. Last year, Chinese and Vietnamese leaders met clandestinely in the southern Chinese city of Chengdu and hammered out a general agreement that snagged on the UN plan and Phnom Penh's unwillingness to accept Sihanouk, a longtime Chinese ally. Less than a year later, however, diplomats say the two adversaries are considering an agreement that would sidetrack the UN plan and elections, and build a new permanent government around the interim council. Vietnam and China will hold further talks today in Beijing. In recent weeks, this power-sharing deal, known among diplomats as a "red solution," has been refashioned as the "pink solution" under Sihanouk's leadership. For Sihanouk's part, Beijing's new view has loosened constraints on the prince, who is increasingly anxious to return as monarch. "I am afraid of dying or becoming senile before seeing the sun come up on the dawn of a new Cambodia and the rehabilitation of its people," the 68-year-old Sihanouk said recently. "With China and Vietnam involved," says an aide, "he knew it was the right time politically." In Cambodia, where Sihanouk says he will return in November, the prince still enjoys widespread popularity in the countryside, Cambodians and political observers say. His imperious, whimsical rule from 1941 to 1970 was marked by shifting international alliances and inconsistent domestic policies that played off competing Cambodian interests.
Sihanouk on saxophone Among older Cambodians, he is remembered as a ruler who reveled in his own deification and dabbled in movie-making, jazz band direction, and magazine editing. But Sihanouk also faces a population whose skeptical youth have known more than 12 years of war, two decades of tumult, and little of the monarch, analysts say. During the brutal four-year rule of the Khmer Rouge, blamed for the death of more than 1 million Cambodians, Sihanouk was placed under house arrest and many in his family were massacred. Still, aides admit his name has been tarnished by association with the Khmer Rouge in the resistance coalition, and his insistence that radical Marxists be included in a political settlement. An Aug. 5 report in the Asian Wall Street Journal notes that former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot played a behind-the-scenes role in recent negotiations, raising questions on whether Pol Pot has indeed retired. "We want Sihanouk back, but only without the Khmer Rouge," says Chea Chin, a farmer near Phnom Penh. "The old guys remember him as a god-king, playing the saxophone and giving away money," says a Soviet diplomat. "The young guys don't remember him at all. But compared to what they have now, at least Sihanouk provides some hope." In the months ahead, Sihanouk faces a delicate juggling act. He is caught between China, which is moving away from a comprehensive peace plan, and the US, which is worried that the peace process will get short-circuited. "We in the United States are not interested in any shortcuts that would result in only a partial settlement in Cambodia," US Secretary of State James Baker III told Southeast Asian foreign ministers recently. It is "time for Cambodian chefs to make Cambodian cuisine, not foreign cooks," said Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen on a recent trip to Japan. Sihanouk has long had volatile relations with the US, which is blamed for engineering his overthrow in a 1970 coup. Still, part of the prince's appeal is his international stature and ability to secure funding to rebuild Cambodia, observers say. But aides say he is ready to consider amendments to the UN plan in an effort to disarm the factions, allowing UN administration of Cambodia, and punishing the Khmer Rouge for genocide during its time in power. On both sides, Sihanouk confronts factionalism. The Phnom Penh regime is using potential genocide as a bargaining chip to forestall efforts to demobilize the competing Cambodian armies. A major question mark is whether the brutal Khmer Rouge will retire quietly, analysts say.