Cambodia After Pol Pot

Events in Cambodia typically defy simple explanation, and this week's news about the flight and possible capture of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot is no exception. The reports are altered or retracted almost as soon as they're broadcast.

But it seems likely, nonetheless, that Cambodia's most notorious political figure, and the radical nationalist-communist movement he founded, are on the way out as major factors shaping Cambodian life.

That doesn't mean the Khmer Rouge, with its peasant base, has lost all political influence. Its remnants are being actively wooed by the parties now in power in Phnom Pehn.

As for Pol Pot himself, ideally he would be taken prisoner and brought to trial for the mass murders he ordered during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in the late 1970s. But both of today's co-prime ministers, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen, have past ties with the Khmer Rouge. Both could be leery of publicly airing the turgid history of the past two decades.

Relations between Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen, always tense, have deteriorated badly of late. This week saw a pitched battle between the personal security forces of the two men. That casts a dark cloud over the immediate future, including elections scheduled for next year.

Cambodia can't be allowed to slip back into the chasm of factional warfare. Through an extraordinary billion-dollar peacemaking effort, the United Nations lifted the country from that chasm in 1991. A formal peace treaty was signed between the Vietnam-installed government, led by Hun Sen, and an armed opposition that included the Khmer Rouge and Ranariddh's royalist party.

Elections were slated for 1993. But the Khmer Rouge refused to participate and threatened to disrupt the vote. International troops maintained order during the campaign and balloting. The election resulted in today's shaky coalition.

What next for Cambodia? The international investment in Cambodian peace and democracy has to be protected. Cambodia may no longer occupy a key geopolitical niche. But it's a crucial test of the world community's will to promote harmony and redress terrible wrongs.

Due pressure should be brought to bear on Phnom Pehn's leading politicians to temper their differences and let the people's voice be heard at the polls next year.

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