IF the civil war in the Balkans is an affront and an embarrassment to the civilized world, the murderous "ethnic cleansing" that is going on there is as nothing compared with the ominous threat that looms in the Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia.
It is a hodge-podge patchwork of factions diverse in political goals, ideological motivation, and ethnic background. Since 1991, the four principal political factions have theoretically been cooperating in a United Nations-supervised peace accord designed to culminate in elections now scheduled for May.
One of those factions is the Phnom Penh government installed by the Vietnamese when they invaded Cambodia. Despite the facade of coalition cooperation, the government is widely assumed to be responsible for attacks on the other factions.
One of the other factions is the infamous Khmer Rouge, the discredited communist faction whose Maoist zealotry led it to commit one of the worst massacres of the 20th century. Probably a million people died in the so-called "killing fields" of Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge as they sought to eliminate their enemies and restructure the economy and society.
Although the Khmer Rouge must rank as one of the most detestable movements of our times, it was conferred respectability under the current peace accord because it was considered too militarily powerful to be excluded. The United States, holding its nose as it did so, went along with the deal.
To almost nobody's surprise, the Khmer Rouge have betrayed their promises to honor the peace accord. They have refused to turn in their weapons. They have frustrated and harassed UN peacekeepers, kidnapping and releasing civilian and military personnel. They have balked at participating in the elections. Moreover, the UN has linked them to a string of new massacres against ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia. Many of these Vietnamese have lived in Cambodia for generations and have become culturally assimilated .
This is an ominous warning of things to come if the Khmer Rouge should outmaneuver the other factions in the present, rickety coalition. The ruthless and practiced killers of the Khmer Rouge could unleash a wave of violence that would go far beyond the killings symbolized by the agonies of Sarajevo.
The question is: Who would care to the point of taking action to stop a Cambodian bloodbath?
Western Europe has been unable to act effectively in Bosnia, on its own continent, where white men slaughter white men. Would it be any more decisive in far-off Asia in a civil war between Asians?
The US has little stomach for a return to the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Russia, once the protagonist of the Vietnamese who invaded Cambodia, is an emasculated world power, beset by ethnic strains and conflicts of its own.
Of Cambodia's neighbors, Thailand has been deeply concerned with Cambodia. But Thailand's role is that of a refuge for Cambodians fleeing violence; the Thais are not going to tangle militarily with any Cambodian faction.
Japan, which has cautiously sent some engineering troops to join the UN peacekeeping force, is not going to increase its role significantly. Nor would Southeast Asian nations, still mindful of Japanese expansionism in World War II, be comfortable with a major Japanese military role in the region.
That leaves China, long the mentor of the Khmer Rouge, which theoretically is supposed to be urging restraint upon its prot.
Thus Cambodia is an ideal vehicle for the application of multilateral action by the UN, now much lauded with the demise of superpower confrontation.
With 22,000 personnel already in the country, the UN has done little to bring the Khmer Rouge to heel. It must act decisively now to forestall another Asian holocaust later. It cannot permit the Khmer Rouge to continue sabotaging the peace accord without punishment. It must not allow the Khmer Rouge to begin another campaign of genocide.