AN overstretched United Nations confronts its most formidable test over Cambodia.
Under an international peace plan, the UN will oversee the return of refugees, administration of the country, demobilization of rival armies, and holding of elections in the war-torn country.
Its success or failure will reshape Cambodia and Southeast Asia and will offer key lessons in an evolving world political scene, analysts say.
"Cambodia is an example for the new world order, post-Soviet Union," says a European diplomat. "The US and the West need to show how to solve conflicts. And if they can solve the Cambodian issue, it will be a model for others."
But whether the UN Transitional Authority for Cambodia (UNTAC) and its international backers are up to the task remains in question, political observers say.
Already, financial headaches, bureaucratic ponderousness, competing demands from Yugoslavia and other hot spots, and damaging delays in getting the UN into Cambodia have set back the process since the settlement was initialed last fall, diplomats, UN officials, and aid experts say.
Under the peace accord, the UN is expected to bring 15,900 blue-helmeted troops to disarm Cambodia's rival armies; 3,600 policemen to curb spreading lawlessness; and 2,400 civilians to temporarily run the country at a cost of $2 billion.
A shortage of funds, however, has limited the force to 3,800 military personnel, 200 policemen, and 200 administrators, undermining the decisiveness and strength of UN authority, observers say.
The United States (which is committed to paying 30 percent of the cost) and other sponsors of the peace plan have pledged funds hesitantly.
Many donors say that UN efforts to hold a truly fair election, block a reemerging Khmer Rouge, and stop a complicated civil war are chancy at best.
"It's taken a while for the UN to get its act together and implement the plan," a senior Western diplomat in Phnom Penh says. "In their defense, they have had a lot of things to do. The UN is working on overload in New York."
Still, many Cambodians say the mere presence of the UN is the most hopeful sign in years.
"The fortune-tellers say that people with golden hair and silver eyes will bring peace to Cambodia," says a Phnom Penh resident who lost more than 100 relatives during Khmer Rouge rule. "I have trust in UNTAC."
But stability in Cambodia remains elusive. Fighting around the crucial central provincial capital of Kompong Thom exploded in March just as the repatriation of more than 300,000 refugees from Thailand got under way.
Troops of the Phnom Penh regime retaliated when the Khmer Rouge, which has avoided implementing the accord and has allowed UN peacekeepers only limited access to its territory, tried to secure Route 12, a crucial gateway to northern Khmer Rouge strongholds.
The radical guerrillas, led by Comdr. Ta Mok, also laid claim to villages in what analysts saw as a territorial grab in the runup to a national election next year.
A contingent of 300 Indonesian paratroopers and a Chinese engineering battalion deployed in the area have failed through negotiating to stop the fighting completely.
Still, the UN announced plans to begin disarming 200,000 members of the rival armies next month, resisting calls to delay the operation until the rainy season ends in October.
Seventy percent of the Cambodian military will be demobilized and the remainder kept in cantonments. The UN plans to have up to 10 battalions of 850 men in place by then, falling short of the expected 12 units, officials say.
In the wake of the fighting at Kompong Thom, Gen. John Sanderson, an Australian who commands the UN peacekeeping force, says he has told the Cambodians: "I don't know why you're doing this. You'll soon be in the cantonments and we'll have your weapons. You understand that, don't you?"
Land mines and lack of cooperation by the Khmer Rouge also continue to obstruct the UN operation, Sanderson adds. The Khmer Rouge refused to honor the cease-fire, contending that Vietnamese troops, who invaded Cambodia in 1978 and launched a withdrawal 11 years later, remain in the country.
Calling the guerrillas' bluff, the UN is setting up six checkpoints on the border with Vietnam as well as additional checks on the Thai frontier. The rival factions have agreed to mark their minefields and detail the number of men and weaponry.
Still, "accountability will be very difficult," admits a military commander in Battambang. "The leaders seem committed to the peace accord. It's the lower rungs of the Khmer Rouge that we're worried about."
"There's still a long way to go in getting the access we are insisting on," says Sanderson in a Monitor interview. "It will take them a while to get the word down from the top, but I'm confident that [the Khmer Rouge] will commit their people to the process."
Meanwhile, the fighting has triggered the laying of new minefields while old ones remain untouched.
In a joint report, Asia Watch and the Physicians for Human Rights have estimated that 35,000 Cambodians have been maimed by mines in Cambodia and along the Thai border with 200 to 300 casualties each month.
Creating additional worries are a recent flood of new mines imported from China and Singapore. Civilians are now using mines rather than fences to protect their property.
"Mines are not only a political and military tool. They are being used to protect farms, settle scores, and other purposes," says Roger Rappaz, Southeast Asia head of the International Committee of the Red Cross.