WASHINGTON — An ancient Khmer prophesy foretells that the people of Cambodia will suffer a period of violence and turmoil so horrendous that the blood bath would "reach the elephant's belly." Since the 1960s, Cambodia, indeed, has lived the prophesy: war against the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese; domestic revolution and the genocidal rule of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, and a decade of Vietnamese occupation. But the tide of blood may have crested.
From 1989-91, the international community and the political factions in Cambodia moved fitfully to craft a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Leadership gravitated to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. An agreement was signed, in Paris, in October, 1991, by 19 countries, the U.N. Secretary-General and the four Khmer factions. The General Assembly unanimously supported it.
The accords on Cambodia were a triumph of international diplomacy after decades of failure to pacify the countries of former French Indochina. For the United Nations, the creation of the U.N. Transitional Authority (UNTAC) in Cambodia to implement the peace plan held the promise of being the first successful effort at international peacekeeping since the end of the Cold War.
There were problems, of course. The U.N. presence in Cambodia, established from scratch in March, 1992, initially lacked enough civil administrators, police and equipment to be fully effective. The large international presence contributed to inflation and corruption. The armies of the Khmer factions refused to disarm, and UNTAC was only moderately successful in controlling political violence. Nearly 70 U.N. personnel died in the effort.
Yet, UNTAC fulfilled its fundamental mission: organizing free and fair elections. Nearly 90% of the Cambodian people turned out to vote in six days of polling that began May 23. And 46% of them voted for the revered Prince Norodom Sihanouk and his political party FUNCINPEC, now headed by one of his sons, Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Sihanouk and other Khmer faction leaders know they have what may be their last chance to fulfill the aspirations of their people. The Constituent Assembly has until the end of August to draft a new constitution and create a parliament and government. The current period of political maneuvering will sorely test the prince's legendary charisma and leadership skills. But he has done a remarkable job of maneuvering his rivals into the political process. Sustained international support will strengthen his hand.
The recent Khmer Rouge offer to merge its forces into a coalition government and national army, however, signals its intention to subvert those with less organizational discipline. The Cambodian leaders who participated in the elections are now wrestling with a Hobson's choice.
Morally and politically, there are strong reasons to exclude the Khmer Rouge, which boycotted the elections, from the new government. Yet, to exclude them virtually guarantees that there will be renewed warfare. Conversely, if the Khmer Rouge are included, fragile institutions of representative government will be exposed to subversion from within and loss of support from abroad.
Either way, there will be a struggle. The issue is which approach will give the Cambodians the best chance of avoiding another round of civil war, consolidating a new government and eventually bringing to justice those responsible for the genocidal violence of the 1970s.
The United States has cautioned Sihanouk against including the Khmer Rouge in the new government as long as they refuse to disarm and open up their zones of control. For good reason there is political opposition in Washington to providing aid to a government that includes these murderers. Yet, if they are excluded, will we--and other members of the U.N. coalition that created the peace plan--support the new government economically and with military assistance in a new struggle against the Khmer Rouge? And should such support be provided bilaterally, or as part of a continuing U.N. commitment to Cambodia?
Only the United Nations has the authority, breadth of support and capacity for sustained effort to help the Khmer people build stable political institutions, begin economic reconstruction and eliminate the factional armies that still threaten a return to civil warfare. Yet, the U.N.'s transitional presence in Cambodia--civilian administrators and peacekeepers who, at maximum, totaled nearly 22,000--is required by the Paris agreement to withdraw from the country when the new government is formed in late August. The withdrawal already has begun and will be completed by mid-November. UNTAC will soon cease to exist.