THOUGH troubled by the recent upsurge in violence in Cambodia, United Nations Security Council members are determined to press ahead with May 23 elections there.
Diplomats admit to growing concern about stepped-up attacks on UN personnel, political party offices and members, and ethnic Vietnamese. Five UN peacekeepers and one Japanese election volunteer and his Cambodian translator have been killed just since March 29.
Some volunteers say they will leave. Japan's Social Democratic Party, the largest opposition party, wants the immediate return of the 600 Japanese who are part of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC).
UN officials say security improvements are under intensive study. On April 12 they announced an agreement with three of Cambodia's four factions on cooperative security arrange- ments during elections.
In UN eyes, the benefits of going ahead with the elections far outweigh the drawbacks. The organization has invested $2 billion and considerable prestige to keep peace in Cambodia. "I think the view of all Council members is that perseverance is the name of the game - we've got to have that election," says Terence O'Brien, a recent Council president who represents New Zealand.
UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali reinforced the same message in several speeches April 7 and 8 in Phnom Penh, where he stopped for the opening of the six-week election campaign during his current trip to East Asia.
"The UN will not be intimidated by violence or threats," he told various audiences. "This operation has to succeed."
The Khmer Rouge and its political wing, Democratic Kampuchea - the only one of the four factions that refused to demobilize troops or take part in elections - are considered responsible for many of the attacks on UN personnel. Many diplomats and analysts say that to abandon the elections now would amount to an invitation to the Khmer Rouge to take the country back with guns.
"You have to have an election which somehow creates a new government in Phnom Penh that is sovereign, has authority, and has the respect, if ever so begrudging, of the rest of the world," comments Frederick Brown, an expert on East Asia at Johns Hopkins University's Foreign Policy Institute. "Otherwise there's no way you can unify the effort to combat the Khmer Rouge."
The Khmer Rouge is considered responsible for the deaths of at least 1 million Cambodians during its four-year reign in the late 1970s. The Vietnamese, who ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979 and installed the current government, still are viewed by the Khmer Rouge as bitter enemies. Fighting between the Khmer Rouge and Phnom Penh government forces, who have been blamed for much of the recent violence against political parties, has escalated in recent days, according to UN officials. Khmer Rouge le aders argue that Vietnamese troops remain in Cambodia (although Hanoi denies it) and accuse the UN of trying to help the Vietnamese stay in power. Khmer Rouge leaders have said they will use "all means necessary" to see that the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh does not win.
Still, some new developments in Cambodia are promising.
Several analysts say the Khmer Rouge no longer has enough power to derail the elections.
Hundreds of thousands of Cambodian refugees have returned home. Nearly 5 million Cambodians, or an estimated 95 percent of those eligible to vote, are registered. They will choose from candidates in 20 political parties under the watchful eye of some 1,000 election observers from 45 nations.
Also, the often mercurial Prince Norodom Sihanouk has agreed to support the elections and stay on as head of the Supreme National Council, the interim governing body, during and after the vote. Earlier this year the prince had said he would no longer cooperate with the UN because of the election violence.
Ambassador James Lilley, an expert on East Asia with the American Enterprise Institute, says in his view the whole idea of "Western-imposed" elections in Cambodia is "mildly ludicrous," because the nation has never really had any. He says that Prince Sihanouk has never "trusted" elections while Vietnamese Prime Minister Hun Sen "doesn't know an election from a bull fiddle." Still, he concedes that the UN has little choice but to follow up on the Paris accords of 1991 that called for a cease-fire and elec tions. "We've got to try to make them [the elections] work."
Some diplomats and analysts say a much tougher UN mandate is needed in Cambodia. Mr. Boutros-Ghali responds that UNTAC has a peacekeeping and not an enforcement mission. Dialogue and diplomacy, which include keeping the door open to Khmer Rouge involvement, are vital, he says. As a carrot which could bring all factions together, the secretary-general frequently cites the $880 million pledged toward reconstruction after the elections take place.