THE United Nations peace operation in Cambodia appears to be unraveling. The Khmer Rouge, a questionable peace partner from the beignning, has detained UN personnel in recent weeks. This week Prince Norodom Sihanouk threatened to pull out of the peace plan unless the UN could stop government-inspired attacks on opposition parties, particularly the pro-royalist party headed by his son.
Finally, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose leftist government was originally installed by the Vietnamese, has demanded that the Khmer Rouge be given a Jan. 31 deadline to cooperate with the UN program.
So three of the four Cambodian factions that signed on with the UN-sponsored peace accord are involved in controversies that threaten to halt the process. Is the situation beyond salvaging?
No, for the simple reason that so much international time and money has already been poured into Cambodia that there's no turning back - not unless key members of the UN are willing to admit defeat. That result would be a blow, not only to the millions of Cambodians whose hopes have been roused by the gigantic UN operation - which is now spending about $100 million a month - but also to UN peacekeeping credibility everywhere.
Everyone knew the UN would have to work its way through political jungles. The Khmer Rouge has little hope of surviving in a Cambodia where legitimacy is bestowed by popular vote instead of a gun, so it is balking. But voter registration and other preparations for the May election of a constituent assembly should proceed regardless.
As always, Prince Sihanouk's motives are not clearly apparent. But the political violence he complains of is a problem, and increased UN efforts to temper it should be enough to bring Sihanouk back into the fold.
The Prince's threat underscores the political fragmentation in Cambodia. Hun Sen's government, for instance, includes both moderates who want to cooperate with the UN and commited Communists who care little about free elections and incline toward violence as a political tactic. The UN has to keep the country moving toward democratic institutions despite the undemocratic habits of some in the existing administrative structure.
The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia is, in fact, a kind of temporary backup government that will have to shepherd Cambodians through unfamiliar electoral and constitution-making processes. From the start, UNTAC has been an ambitious experiment. Seeing it through is a major test of the international commitment to democracy-building.