Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

After Years of War, Cambodia Tackles Peace Signing Peace Agreements in Paris Is One Thing; Settling Down to the Business of Government - Turns out to Be Another

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

After Years of War, Cambodia Tackles Peace Signing Peace Agreements in Paris Is One Thing; Settling Down to the Business of Government - Turns out to Be Another

Article excerpt

THE leaders who plunged Cambodia into more than two decades of war and turmoil are nudging the country toward a postwar contest for political survival.

The return of Prince Norodom Sihanouk has thrown Cambodia into flux, catapulting the former king to the forefront as restored head of state, triggering political shifts, and isolating the militarily powerful Khmer Rouge.

No one is sure if the new round of intrigue will lead this impoverished country into new tumult or forge some desperately needed political stability, analysts say.

"There remains a deep suspicion and mistrust among all the factions," says a Western diplomat. "Still, there's a lot of hearts-and-minds winning that will go on. A positive aspect is that you have a population which is thoroughly sick of war and ready to give it a chance."

For the moment, Sihanouk is on center stage. Within days of arriving in his faded royal capital, the erstwhile monarch shed his decade-long alliance with Cambodia's rebels, including the Khmer Rouge, and blessed a new coalition between his son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and Phnom Penh Prime Minister Hun Sen, whom Sihanouk once condemned.

In another move to bolster his clout, observers said, the temperamental leader insisted on being redesignated Cambodia's head of state. Ousted in 1970 by a United States-backed coup, Sihanouk also remains the head of the Supreme National Council (SNC), an interim reconciliation body comprised of the four rival factions.

"I don't pretend to be the best chief of state," Sihanouk told a press conference, "but I pretend to be the least bad chief of state."

Some Western and Cambodian political observers see in these recent moves the Sihanouk of old: a mercurial autocrat with little tolerance for having his authority challenged. That arrogance, in part, fed the rise to power of Khmer Rouge communists who killed at least 1 million Cambodians during a four-year-rule in the 1970s.

"Sihanouk wants to stay neutral as president of the SNC," says an international aid worker who spent several years in Phnom Penh. "But he also wants to be the sole architect of the Cambodian peace."

And yet to many young Cambodians, Sihanouk is merely a name. Half of the 350,000 Cambodians living in refugee camps on the Thai border are too young to remember the former god-king's rule.

Those who remained in the country are drawn more to Hun Sen, Phnom Penh's prime minister. Forty-year-old Srean Sang stood on a street corner to watch the former king's arrival with her elderly aunt. But it didn't mean much, she said. "I know Hun Sen better," she said, looking at a flattering portrait of Sihanouk in his youth.

Indeed, popular among urbanites and intellectuals, Hun Sen rides on Sihanouk's coattails even as he offers the long absent leader a political base.

Hun Sun, a former Khmer Rouge officer who defected to Vietnam in 1977 and became part of a new government installed by the invading Vietnamese, has moved to distance himself from his past. …

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