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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

CAMBODIAN TRAGEDY

A multi-pronged effort is needed to end the country's travails


BY ALL ACCOUNTS, CAMBODIA'S once-dreaded Khmer Rouge is in its death throes. Its mysterious leader, Pol Pot, is reportedly held prisoner by his own rebellious followers. Elements of the guerrilla group seem ready to disband their "provisional government" in the north of the country and join forces with the National United Front led by First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh. The scourge of Cambodia, the man whose cruel determination to rebuild a new society from Year Zero almost made a zero out of his nation, may be dead or headed for trial before a Cambodian or an international war-crimes tribunal.

The sounds heard in the capital, Phnom Penh, however, are not those of unrestrained rejoicing. Volleys have been fired, not from exuberance, but at human targets. Three months ago, a grenade attack killed at least 16 civilians. Then a gunman shot at a car carrying Second Prime Minister Hun Sen. Two weeks ago, the downtown neighborhood where Prince Ranariddh lives was rattled by a firefight between his bodyguard unit and forces loyal to Hun Sen.

Just when its Khmer Rouge curse is about to be lifted, is long-suffering Cambodia drifting tragically toward a new civil conflict? If so, it is not one fought in the country's jungles and mountain redoubts but in the streets of its capital -- a slow-motion showdown between its rival premiers. These days, Ranariddh and Hun Sen sometimes move around Phnom Penh in convoys of military vehicles, and they hunker down in compounds surrounded by guards. Loyalists on both sides are said to be stockpiling machine guns and anti-tank weapons. Pol Pot has become largely irrelevant, even before his putatively imminent demise.

In all probability, things will not degenerate into open, armed conflict. One reason is that Hun Sen may be too strong; he has greater influence over the Royal Cambodian Army than anybody else. Nonetheless, the situation is bad enough. The co-premiers, who openly fell out last year, seem to have stopped almost all cooperation. Each is more intent these days on recruiting former Khmer Rouge commanders to his side, a dangerous game of brinkmanship. Normal political life has ground to a halt. The National Assembly, where Cambodia's political debates should be thrashed out, is more than two months late convening. Nationwide elections are scheduled for next year, but all preparations are on hold.

Are Cambodia's prospects entirely grim? It is still possible that the country can muddle through until the polls. The National Assembly may yet go back into session to enact laws deemed desirable for the country's entry into ASEAN, scheduled for July. The legislature also has to pass the national budget as well as electoral laws. The poll itself, assuming it proceeds, may provide one co-premier or the other with a clear-cut majority. Certainly, Hun Sen would want to win in order to legitimize his control of the country. But the election is more likely to prove inconclusive, like the one in 1993, producing yet another unstable period of joint leadership.

Cambodia clearly can use help. ASEAN, now that it has decided to admit Phnom Penh, has a major interest in making sure that things do not get worse. Continuing instability would be particularly disturbing to Cambodia's immediate neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, though the entire association would feel the strain. Though the likelihood is not high, outside powers may also be tempted to meddle. ASEAN may be loath to intervene in a member's internal affairs, but it should put both Hun Sen and Ranariddh on notice that serious fighting between their forces would cast doubt on their country's suitability for membership. On a more positive note, member states should offer to help mediate the quarrel in Phnom Penh. Relatively neutral Indonesia would be well placed to fill a counselor's role, as it did during the Philippines' successful effort to resolve the protracted Muslim rebellion in Mindanao. Malaysia may be suitable as well.

The United Nations also has a lingering moral responsibility. In the early 1990s, the organization undertook the costliest and most elaborate peacekeeping and nation-building exercise ever attempted by an international body. It spent $2 billion and deployed 23,000 peace-keeping troops, plus hundreds of Western and Asian advisers. So the U.N., and all the nations that helped underwrite the effort, have more than a passing interest in making it a success. No one will call for a repeat performance on such a scale, but Secretary General Kofi Annan may bring constructive new perspectives by offering to mediate as well. Conveniently, he will be in the region this week to attend Hong Kong's handover ceremony.

One other party, plainly, should lend a hand: King Norodom Sihanouk. Cambodia's voluble monarch has remained uncharacteristically quiet as his nation suffered its latest travails. Still the country's top moral voice, he should do what he can to ease the tensions between Ranariddh, his son, and Hun Sen. The demise of the Khmer Rouge provides Cambodia with its best opportunity in perhaps two decades to make a positive new start. Phnom Penh's co-premiers know this full well and must not let their rivalry derail it.


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