BANGKOK, Thailand — New initiatives for a political settlement of the Cambodian conflict have reached the highest pitch in years, raising expectations that peace may finally come to Indochina, but so far each feeler has run into resistance in some quarter.
In Phnom Penh, Beijing, Hanoi and the current U.N. General Assembly, new or warmed-over peace proposals have been rolled out almost daily for the last few months, couched in terms of conciliation and concession. The focus has been on calls for the Cambodian factions to begin the process with talks among themselves.
Two weeks ago in Beijing, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's former monarch and now head of an armed resistance front, floated what has been labeled "the seven wise men proposal," a purported invitation from seven eminent Cambodians living abroad for the factions to meet, probably somewhere in Europe.
"I . . . accept with great pleasure," Sihanouk said, adding that those who oppose the idea would have to take responsibility for "the death, sooner or later, of a Kampuchea (Cambodia) belonging to the Kampucheans."
Days later in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen, premier of the Vietnamese-installed Cambodian government, told The Times in an interview that his regime is willing to meet with all resistance factions. "There should be no preconditions," he said. ". . . We can discuss the form of government, the constitution, the foreign policy."
Indonesian Foreign Minister Mochtar Kusumaatmadja, representing the non-Communist Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), got the ball rolling in July talks with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach. Mochtar suggested a "cocktail party"--an informal meeting of the factions. Vietnam, he said, could join the talks "at a later stage."
Two factors, in particular, have sharpened expectations that a settlement may be possible: Phnom Penh's stated willingness to deal politically for the first time with the Khmer Rouge, and the impending test of Hanoi's pledge to withdraw all of its estimated 140,000 troops from Cambodia by 1990.
"It's going to be hard for the Vietnamese to back down," said a Phnom Penh-based diplomat, though acknowledging that Hanoi has recently made its withdrawal conditional on the war situation.
But behind all the agreeable words are implied preconditions. These have been stumbling blocks to a political solution since the December, 1978, Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, which drove from power the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, led by Pol Pot, and installed the current, pro-Vietnam government in Phnom Penh.
At the United Nations on Tuesday, Nguyen Dy Nien, a Vietnamese deputy foreign minister, put the standoff succinctly: "The other side (the resistance) demands that Vietnam withdraw its forces from Kampuchea (before any settlement takes place), while the Indochinese countries (Communist-ruled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) insist on the removal of the genocidal Pol Pot clique."
Whatever the merits and ambitions of the other parties, the Vietnamese occupation army and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge guerrillas remain the bogymen in the Cambodian drama--unacceptable to one faction or another.
Further complicating any settlement are the key roles played in the fitful Cambodian conflict by the Soviet Union, Vietnam's principal backer, and China, which funds the resistance front.
As a Bangkok-based diplomat noted recently, "The whole thing operates at (several) different levels." Often what seems possible on the level of the Cambodian factions is not acceptable to the big powers. And what is acceptable to China and the Soviet Union might be anathema to Hanoi.
Because of the deep divisions and the number of parties involved, he and other diplomats remain dubious that the current initiatives will lead to an early solution.
And there remains the possibility that the overtures are mainly concentrated on wooing votes in the General Assembly when the annual resolution calling for withdrawal of Vietnamese troops comes to the floor. That resolution and votes awarding Cambodia's seat in the United Nations to the resistance coalition--rather than to the government that currently runs Cambodia--have passed by overwhelming margins since 1979.
Divisions on Plan
Many think that the Cambodians will have to solve their problems themselves, but even among allies, there are divisions on the proposal for an all-Cambodian meeting:
- Mochtar's initial "cocktail party" proposal, inviting the Vietnamese in at a later stage, was modified within ASEAN. Thailand and Singapore took the lead, calling for almost immediate Vietnamese participation, and recently the hairs have been split even finer. Indonesia and Malaysia have tended not to be as demanding of Hanoi as Thailand and Singapore.