US Leaves Cambodia Crisis to Asian Neighbors

In weekend decision Albright seeks to shift focus to group known for nonintervention

In terms of international response, Cambodia is beginning to look a bit like Bosnia.

The Southeast Asian nation of 9 million people, where one of the country's two copremiers ousted the other by force this month, is presenting the international community with another test of its will to follow through on promises to forge peace and stability.

How to react to Cambodian leader Hun Sen's violent seizure of sole power has been a pressing topic in many capitals, partly because Cambodia's troubles draw international sympathy - with good reason. In the past three decades, the country has been bombed by the US, administered by a murderous, Mao-inspired tyrant named Pol Pot, and invaded by Vietnam.

In the early 1990s, the United Nations led a $2-billion effort to establish peace and democracy that was also a sort of moral compensation for Cambodia's painful past. The actions of Mr. Hun Sen, a Vietnamese-trained former Communist, have jeopardized the success of this project, and the US and other nations have spent three weeks figuring out what to do about him.

At meetings in this suburb of the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, top officials from Southeast Asian nations, the US, and other countries have decided on a strategy that echoes the early days of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Let's let the neighbors handle the problem.

The neighbors, in this instance, mean a 30-year-old organization called the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which brings together every country in the region except Cambodia. "The US supports and applauds ASEAN's leading role in the effort to resolve the crisis in Cambodia," Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said yesterday in remarks to leaders of 21 countries meeting here to discuss security in Asia.

The problem is that the organization has long kept out of individual countries' internal affairs. "The success of ASEAN ... lies in nonintervention in serious disputes," says an Asian diplomat here who asked for anonymity.

The group Mrs. Albright addressed, the ASEAN Regional Forum, was only established in 1994. Both it and the much smaller ASEAN have encouraged countries to join by promising not to interfere in individual nations' domestic politics. ASEAN seems to value stability above all.

"As long as Hun Sen and Cambodia's domestic situation are stable," the Asian diplomat continues, "I don't believe ASEAN will take a significant role in changing the state of government in Phnom Penh."

There are other reasons to believe that Hun Sen will more or less get away with his power grab. Japan, Cambodia's leading donor, said this weekend that it would continue providing the country with copious financial assistance. The US suspended its $35 million aid and hasn't decided when or whether it will renew.

A European diplomat attending the meetings here says the European Union wants to ensure that Hun Sen follows through on a plan to hold elections in May 1998, that he remains open to working with the international community, and that he "respects" the fatherly role played by Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk. If Hun Sen behaves in this manner, the diplomat adds, "we will never cut links with Cambodia."

The leaders of some key Southeast Asian nations seemed to have convinced the US and other countries that they have the commitment and the means to improve the situation in Cambodia.

"Somebody has to step forward and mediate, and we think ASEAN can do it," the State Department's Nicholas Burns says. "It's not passing the buck at all," he adds. It's reality ... you can't talk about a problem forever."

ASEAN, echoing the Japanese approach, has long opposed tough measures to influence change in individual countries. It espouses "constructive engagement" and last weekend admitted Burma, whose government Albright deems one of the "most repressive and intrusive on Earth."

There is inescapable irony in the US turning to ASEAN to promote democracy in Cambodia when the organization is comfortable with the existence of a military dictatorship in Burma. Since Cambodia wants to be part of ASEAN, the group may be able to use membership as leverage, but it did not use that incentive to push for change in Burma.

In the 1993 UN-backed Cambodian elections, the royalist party of Prince Norodom Ranariddh won but was forced to form a coalition with Hun Sen, who promised civil war if he wasn't included. The uneasy powersharing turned to conflict on July 5, when Hun Sen seized control of the government while Mr. Ranariddh was out of the country.

It seems clear that Ranariddh will not be able to resume his copremier role, but the US and ASEAN are hoping that Hun Sen can be persuaded to revive the coalition and work with another representative from Ranariddh's party until the 1998 elections.

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