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The Diplomatic Dance: Cambodia on the International Stage

Cambodia has not known peace since well before the United States' withdrawal from Saigon on 30 April 1975. With each palace coup, and even with the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975, many Cambodians believed that finally the wars were at an end. They welcomed Pol Pot's soldiers with hope for the future.

But the war did not end with Pol Pot's arrival, nor with Vietnam's liberation of Phnom Penh in January 1979 from the horrors of his regime. Nor has it ended with Vietnam's withdrawal in September 1989.

Under the current government of Prime minister Hun Sen, stability and security - a slow process of recovery from the devastation of the Pol Pot years - have been achieved in large areas of the country. The struggle to revive economic life and to provide basic services to the 8.4 million Cambodians, most of whom reside in rural provinces, continues to make progress, with the help of international aid agencies. Dancers are once again performing at the University of Fine Arts; students are studying at Phnom Penh University; makers of fish sauce are once more traveling from outlying areas to the banks of the Tonle Sap for the annual fish run from which the pungent pra hok is made.

Visitors to Phnom Pehn contrast the drab, depopulated streets of the early 1980s with the lively, colorful, bustling Southeast Asian market-town atmosphere at the end of the decade. In the early 1980s, many Cambodians seemed to feel compelled to pour out to visitors their personal terrors of the Pol Pot era. By 1989, spirits appeared to be recovering, along with improvements in physical well-being, the revival of dance, music, and art, and the upswing in economic and social activity. Stories of the Khmer Rouge era still circulated, but the emphasis had shifted from the horror to the absurdity and stupidity of the massive Khmer Rouge labor projects directed by Chinese and North Korean advisors.

One of the greatest frustrations experienced by the aid community in Phnom Penh has been the refusal of Western governments to acknowledge the internal transformation in Cambodia. From total devastation in 1979, a flourishing society has been rebuilt, albeit with still unresolved social and economic problems. All of the institutions destroyed in the mad utopia of the Khmer Rouge have reemerged: agriculture, currency, commerce, banking, schools, hospitals, the art, religion, communications. Initially largely administered by advisors from Vietnam, the Hun Sen government has gradually improved its credibility as Khmer have steadily increased their role and responsibility within the context of Vietnam's phased departure. As conditions have improved, so has the prime minister's personal stature.

In Phnom Penh, early in 1989, the mood was optimistic. Everyone said Pol Pot could not return.

International and Regional Flexibility

Although an international Cambodian settlement was not yet in view, in the late 1980s many Cambodians felt that accommodation among their current leaders, who had achieved so much with so little, and their former head of state, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, could prevent the return of the dreaded Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk had taken a leave of absence (May 1987), and then resigned (July 1988) from leadership of the resistance coalition fighting against the Hun Sen government. It seemed plausible that a settlement was near.

The past two years have seen almost constant movement toward a compromise solution to the Cambodian dilemma, in contrast to the stagnation of the previous decade. The international situation has undergone dramatic change, unimagined a few years ago. Since 1986, there has been unprecedented cooperation between the United States and Vietnam on humanitarian issues, rapprochement between the United States and the Soviet Union, between the Soviet Union and China, and among Vietnam, Laos, and their large northern neighbor, China. The Soviet Union's desire to exert regional influence more subtly and with less direct economic cost, has left significant room for compromise. Indochina watchers have even speculated that China would be flexible on the Cambodia issue in a id to regain international credibility following the Tianamen Square massacre.

US policy over the past decade has been primarily concerned with pressuring Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia. To this end the United States has maintained a diplomatic, trade, and aid embargo against Vietnam and Cambodia. In addition, it has provided financial support for "nonlethal" aid to the noncommunist resistance (NCR), channeled through Thailand, and logistical support to their military wings via the Bangkok-based Cambodian Working Group. US pressure has discouraged international agencies such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the International Monetary Fund from dealing with Vietnam and Cambodia in the normal fashion. The United States has supported the retention of the United Nations seat by the Khmer Rouge government of Democratic Kampuchea in the guise of a Sihanouk-led coalition. (Should the coalition be dissolved, the seat reverts to the Khmer Rouge.) To pursue the goal of pressuring Vietnam, an implicit pact was made with China by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1979 to revitalize the China-backed Khmer Rouge, the only effective fighting and diplomatic force within the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK).

By May 1989, US policy under the Bush Administration was showing some signs of change. Secretary of State James Baker, in a 5 July speech to ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) foreign ministers in Brunei, indicated a new willingness to accept the functioning government in Phnom Penh, headed by Hun Sen, as long as Sihanouk received face-saving guarantees. Over the next month, a number of official statements and press accounts reaffirmed this position while emphasizing a strengthened anti-Khmer Rouge line.

On the regional level, change has been staggering. Since 1986, all the countries in Indochina have embarked on distinctive forms of glasnost and perestroika, Economic restructuring is occurring along market-oriented lines, as property is privatized, openings made to foreign investment capital and ownership, exchange rates stabilized, and inflation reduced. Petty trading, private workshops, joint ventures, and partnerships are replacing communes and cooperatives. The Vietnamese economy, according to World Bank experts, achieved more reform in the past two years than China was able to achieve in ten. Cambodia has gone furthest in reforms, including the reestablishment of Buddhism as the state religion.

Unofficial trade with the ASEAN countries (Brunei Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand) had already been strong. Indochina's internal reforms combined with the regulations had led businesspeople from many Western and east Asian countries - particularly Japan, Taiwan, Australia, France, Sweden, and even China - to join the increasing numbers of their colleagues from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore in searching for business opportunities in this labor - and resource-rich region. Internal reforms have also led to a loosening of the ties among the three countries and with the socialist world, and to interest in forging new bonds with China, ASEAN, and Western countries. Tourism and academic exchanges have expanded in this climate.

In the last several years, the political climate within ASEAN has moved toward an overwhelming desire to resolve the Cambodia situation and get on with the business of economic development and regional reintegration. Indonesia, long in favor of openness and flexibility toward Indochina, found an ally in Thailand. Although Thailand had been the leader of the hard-line camp against any accommodation with the countries of Indochina, the assumption of office in August 1988 of Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan set a new course. Chatichai, concerned with improving relations within the region, proposed to turn Indochina "from a battlefield to a trading market." Thailand had torpedoed previous Indonesian efforts at compromise, but Chatichai's government began to work with Indonesia to implement the JIM (Jakarta Informal Meeting) process, which in turn led to the convening of the 19-nation international conference on Cambodia in Paris in August 1989.

The rekindled interest in achieving a settlement, and the heightened level of diplomatic activity on several fronts, led to optimism about the outcome of the Paris conference. However, the intransigence of the Khmer Rouge and China, the abrupt about-face of Sihanouk, and the willingness of the United States to accept passively the situation contributed to the failure of the international effort. It foundered on the essential issue of whether to include the Khmer Rouge in an interim government. ASEAN, Sihanouk, China, the United States, and the Khmer Rouge favored inclusion; Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and Hun Sen's State of Cambodia insisted on exclusion.

Prior to the Paris talks, the Bush Administration reportedly had been prepared to insist that the long-deposed prince break with his Khmer Rouge allies (and, by implication, his Chinese sponsors), as he appeared to be doing during the JIM process and in several meetings with Hun Sen since December 1987. Following the prince's reversion to alliance with the Khmer Rouge, the US State Department's Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Richard H. Solomon explained that Sihanouk was "our horse in this race" and that "we went along with his judgment." In fact, the Paris talks immediately followed the secret Scowcroft-Eagelberger mission to China, suggesting that Sihanouk's was not the only influential voice involved.

The conference ended with international resignation that the only way the four Cambodian factions could settle their differences was on the battlefield of their homeland. The international community essentially sanctioned the factions to fight until weakness might bring them back to the bargaining table, ready to deal.

New Pressures, New Opportunities, Old Questions

On the heels of the failed Paris conference, Vietnam withdrew its remaining forces from Cambodia. Shortly after the 30 September withdrawal, US military intelligence analysts confirmed that, despite the resistance claims and Chinese claims to the contrary, the long-awaited withdrawal had, in fact, taken place. Until then, US policy had concentrated almost solely on this goal, paying little heed to what might happen to Cambodia were the Vietnamese actually to leave. Scant consideration had been given to the State of Cambodia's fragility or to the potential for renewed ravages of a revitalized Khmer Rouge.

The failure of the Paris conference and the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops did not diminish diplomatic activity aimed at finding a face-saving exit from a situation growing daily more embarrassing for many of the key players, and daily more dangerous for Cambodians. Khmer Rouge forces on the ground began to make some gains. Although fewer than their propagandists claimed (and uncritically reported by the Western press), reports of their success infused the process with greater urgency. It began to dawn on the international community that the diplomatically isolated and economically fragile Hun Sen government might not be able to withstand, unaided, the onslaught of resistance forces nurtured and supplied by China and the United States over the past decade.

Prime Minister Chaitichai invited Prime Minister Hun Sen to Bangkok for the third time in a year. Chatichai and his advisors shuttled among the various players trying to obtain agreement for another meeting.

Although the UN once again voted in November 1989 to seat the Khmer Rouge-dominated CGDK, Finland and Sweden, longtime supporters of the annual resolution, refused to fall in line. Others, in their speeches, evoked the sentiments expressed by British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd: Britain's vote to accept the credentials of the CGDK "in no way implies readiness to deal with the coalition government of Democratic Kampuchea as a government, much less support for the Khmer Rouge."

Since October 1989, Canada, Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and Australia have announced new diplomatic overtures to Cambodia and/or Vietnam, further cracking the hitherto firm bulwark against interaction with the Hun Sen government and adding to its growing international legitimacy. The most promising diplomatic initiative has come from Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Gareth Evans. In late November, Evans announced a proposal calling for a UN-supervised interim administration and vacant UN seat. "What I would be envisioning would be one, two or maybe three hundred bureaucrats... putting in a top structure of an administration for this transitional period." He argues that this administration would get around the stumbling block of power sharing in the interim government. The plan does not call for the complete dismantling of the Hun Sen government (some 250,000 personnel countrywide) during the interim period before elections, but it does involve "Hun Sen stepping back from a position of formal authority."

This proposal became the basis for a new round of diplomatic efforts. Within days, both Sihanouk and Hun Sen had agreed to the proposal, followed shortly by Son Sann, leader of the smallest member of the resistance coalition, the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF). Only the Khmer Rouge rejected Australia's proposal outright, continuing to insist on quadripartite power sharing before elections. Beijing's and Moscow's subsequently favorable responses led to a 15 January meeting in Paris among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. The text of a joint declaration issued following the two-day meeting specified agreement to "accept an enhanced UN role in the resolution of the Cambodian problem." This "enhanced" role includes the verification of the withdrawal of foreign forces and an effective UN presence to monitor internal security during the transition period. The communique clearly supports the notion of UN involvement in the interim period, but does not directly address the extent of UN involvement in a transitional government. Nor does the text mention the Australian plan, which would keep the core of the Hun Sen administrative apparatus in place during the period before elections.

Senior UN officials have noted that this communique reflects Soviet and Vietnamese flexibility, rather than concessions on the part of China. Since all parties except China and its Khmer Rouge allies had already accepted the Australian plan as a basis for discussion, the Paris communique should be seen as a step in what is apt to be a lengthy process, rather than as the breakthrough originally reported. It may prove significant, however, that certain previous stumbling blocks are not mentioned in the new text; for example, the joint statement omits reference to a role for Sihanouk and to a quadripartite interim government.

Journalist Nayan Chanda has reminded New York Times readers of the particular omission. Previously "even China endorsed a UN statement calling for 'nonreturn' to the universally condemned policies and practices of Cambodia's recent past." While the absence of such a statement here might seem to be backsliding on this issue, a high-ranking UN official insists that the UN has been assured that the language will reappear in a subsequent statement. However, this has not happened.

The fundamental issue that continues to thwart a settlement is who will govern in the interim before an election. The Khmer Rouge insists on quadripartite power sharing. Sihanouk often advocates the same thing but also has called for dismantling the Hun Sen government to the district level and replacing it with a UN administration. Congressman Solarz and the Bush Administration also seem inclined toward widespread replacement of the Hun Sen Administration with UN administrators. Senior UN officials indicate that the UN does not see itself as the administrator of a country with direct responsibility for its everyday functioning. They stress that UN expertise lies in a supervisory and monitoring role - a watchdog function meant to induce confidence and provide an atmosphere for free and fair elections. Such a role could only be based on the assumption that all parties are willing to cooperate in good faith.

Unfortunately, the laudable Western goal of assuring free and fair elections has been confused by assumptions that Sihanouk is still popular and plays a central unifying role, and by accession to China's demands that its Khmer Rouge client should be absolved of past crimes and given access to power prior to elections.

In conversations in Phnom Penh in January, it became clear that the Hun Sen government sees the UN role primarily to carry out elections, but that it is willing to accept UN supervision wide enough to assure that normal administrative powers are not used to prejudice the electoral process against its opponents. Phnom Penh has not mitigated its rejection of the Khmer Rouge in an interim government, nor, at this writing, is it prepared to have the stability of its governance undermined to the benefit of the Khmer Rouge by the removal of top political officials.

Although Phnom penh would probably still prefer that Cambodia's seat in the UN be vacated, and although it rejects the quadripartite formula for UN representation, it is willing to preserve Cambodian sovereignty through a national council consisting of equal representatives from both administrations. It would be up to the resistance coalition to determine the nature of Khmer Rouge participation in its administration. An alternative is a council composed of eminent personalities acceptable to both sides.

The Khmer Rouge shows little desire to accept such a formula; its military options, however, could be forestalled by Thai closure of supply lines and sanctuaries. This can only happen if the United States, ASEAN, Western Europe, and Japan together support Chatichai and make it clear that China would be completely isolated in its attempts to resupply the Khmer Rouge. Although this would not please the Khmer Rouge, it may gamble on elections allowing it to extend its penetration and provide some legitimacy. Such elections could always be later denounced as fraudulent, too. The Sihanoukists and Son Sannists would agree because they must calculate carefully how much they can reasonably expect in preelection power sharing, as opposed to a chance for open electoral competition. If they try to ride the Khmer Rouge tiger into military victory over the Phnom Penh government, they know they will soon become Pol Pot's next victim.

Nonetheless, there is cause for optimism. A highly placed UN official hastened to remind his listeners that although the January joint statement is vague and contentious issues remain, the five powers had been unable to issue any joint statement at all following the August Paris conference: They spoke only of blame and the certainty of renewed civil war. All parties have now accepted a major UN role. This signals significant progress, although disagreement simmers over just what kind of UN role will satisfy all parties.

While Sihanouk continues to be a valued symbol of national unity for all sides, his impact on events has steadily diminished. France and the United States lost confidence in him as a result of the Paris conference. Washington was so disturbed by the growing collaboration between Sihanoukist and Khmer Rouge forces that it pressured the prince to distance himself, leading to yet another resignation by him from his position as head of the CGDK. However, Sihanouk maintained he was still the legal leader of Cambodia based on the illegitimacy of his overthrow in 1970. He manifested that by changing the CGDK's name, anthem, and flag at the UN.

In March, shortly after taking up permanent residence in border villages "liberated" by his forces, pressing personal matters took him again to Beijing, Pyongyang, and Bangkok. Observers increasingly wondered whether the unpredictable maneuvering with which Sihanouk had once maintained his nation's independence had now become a destructive parody of itself.

Despite doubts over exact interpretation of events and the high level of abstraction present in official statements, it is clear that the situation has been moved off dead center by the process begun with the Australian proposal. The coming months will see a further flurry of diplomatic activity as the various players work to gain consensus based on the Australian plan. The permanent members of the Security Council met again in New York on 11-13 February. Little progress was made and final statements were even more abstract than those following the January meeting.

The third JIM meeting (in Jakarta on 23-26 February 1990) resolved little. Although all participants came giving at least lip service to the Australian plan, Foreign Minister Evans expressed great frustration at the less than full participation of the French, the "wrecking crew" behavior of the Khmer Rouge, and Vietnam's insistence on retaining anti-genocide language in the conference statement, which therefore died for lack of a consensus by all four Cambodian parties.

The burden of finding a solution then shifted back to the major external powers in a 12 March gathering of the Permanent 5 Security Council members in Paris. Substantial attention was given to the enhanced task of the UN in carrying out elections, but crucial questions were left unresolved about the role of the existing governmental structure in Cambodia and the fate of the four armies. Optimists saw this process leading to a situation in which China would either have to accept a face-saving formula that in reality left the Phnom Penh regime intact until elections were held, or find itself completely isolated. Pessimists felt the Chinese were winning key points in their diplomatic game of white-washing the Khmer Rouge record and playing for time while their client extended its influence on the ground.

Military successes in April by Phnom Penh, combined with Thai intentions to replace guerrilla camps and supply lines with neutral camps and apparent cuts in Chinese arms supplies, offer on-the-ground support for a realistic settlement. The decisive factor on the diplomatic front and in Thai willingness to cut off the Khmer Rouge is US policy. In the final analysis, will Washington stand up to Beijing over the question of the Khmer Rouge? Is vindictiveness toward Vietnam and desire to roll back the defeat of 1975 still dominating US policy?

Playing Russian Roulette with Cambodian Lives

It is too early to tell if these renewed diplomatic machinations will bear fruit and salvage what the Hun Sen government has achieved for the Cambodian people in the past decade. Some recent visitors to Phnom Penh say that people in the capital are trying to carry on with their lives, but clearly the national situation has deteriorated since the Vietnamese withdrawal. Press accounts of Khmer Rouge victories are highly exaggerated, but the mood in Phnom Penh is not as optimistic and hopeful as it was in the summer of 1989. People continue to say they are sure the Khmer Rouge cannot rule again. However, spirits have been dampened by intensified security, a reimposed curfew, and occasional bomb and grenade explosions within the capital.

Perhaps more serious are the soaring inflation, corruption, and growing disparity between urban and rural life brought on by the intensified war and the transition to a market economy. Some Western residents report occasional severe electricity and fuel shortages. It is not clear whether this is related to an intensification of the civil war or whether the new regulations allowing foreign residents to move out of relatively well-maintained hotels into private villas have brought previously protected foreign observers is closer contract with longstanding problems confronting Cambodian residents of Phnom Penh.

If the situation deteriorates seriously, the specter of renewed instability may well lead to panic and the flight of some who are too tired and worn to face another Khmer Rouge victory or to start rebuilding their country anew, should international rescue be delayed too long.

The West is counting on the Khmer Rouge being strong enough to threaten the Hun Sen government, but not so strong as to topple it. It is also assuming Hun Sen will be weak enough to contemplate political suicide, but not so weak as to leave a vacuum for the Khmer Rouge. This scenario does not consider the almost irreparable damage that delays in peace will bring to a Cambodia just beginning to recover from its earlier devastation. It is easy to see how such a complexly choreographed set of assumptions could backfire. In that case, the West has a diplomatic failure; the Cambodian people have Pol Pot.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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