Peacemaking has run into trouble in various parts of the world. The Middle East, Northern Ireland, Haiti, and Rwanda come to mind. But Cambodia, the small Southeast Asian country whose tragic history coined the phrase "killing fields," is a particularly poignant example of peacemaking at the crossroads.
The international community, working through the United Nations, invested $2 billion in 1992 and 1993 to build peace and democracy there. Some 20,000 peacekeepers from various parts of the globe served there. Well-monitored, orderly elections were held in '93. A party led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, son of Cambodian patriarch King Norodom Sihanouk, won the largest vote. But the prince's chief rival, Hun Sen, who ran the country through the '80s with backing from Vietnam's communist rulers, challenged the results and threatened a civil war.
What emerged was an uneasy coalition with Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen as twin prime ministers. Another election is scheduled for next year, and political tensions have been mounting.
Like other strife-torn parts of the world - Bosnia, for instance, or Haiti - Cambodia had little preparation for democracy and a huge burden of injustice and fear to lift. That burden seemed to crash down again on March 30 when grenades were thrown into a political rally held by a small party vehemently opposed to Hun Sen. More than a dozen people were killed and over 100 injured. The incident brought forecasts of doom for Cambodia's democratic experiment.
But Cambodian democracy has some things in its favor - not least, a recent history that no one wants to see repeated. The reign of the Maoist Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s, when political purges took as many as 1 million lives, was the nadir from which the country is still emerging. Only a few Khmer Rouge fighters remain in the jungles. But the resort to violence as a political tactic - carried to horrific extremes by the Khmer Rouge - continues to cloud Cambodia.
An effective justice system, to investigate atrocities like the grenade attack and punish perpetrators, would help dispel that cloud. As things stand, however, the country's Interior Ministry and national police are viewed as pawns of Hun Sen. An objective probe, leading to prosecution, seems a distant ideal.
Yet the UN effort in Cambodia was ambitiously aimed at turning just such ideals into realities. As political violence again threatens to take hold in Cambodia, the nations that helped spearhead that effort - notably Japan and the United States - must reenergize their support for democracy and bring diplomatic pressures to bear on Hun Sen to move ahead with an investigation of the recent violence and come to terms with the even greater violence of the past. A "culture of accountability" is needed, according to experts who've tracked peacemaking and democratic development in Cambodia and elsewhere. And the best, and perhaps only, way it's likely to arrive is through active shepherding by an aroused international community.
Cambodia is a vital test case that can't be allowed to drop off the world's screen.