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China's lead role for 'opera prince'

No sooner has Prince Norodom Sihanouk declared an end to his sideshow role in Cambodian politics then the Chinese are coaxing him center stage again. The ousted Cambodian ruler returns to Peking at month's end amid pressure from the Chinese to spearhead a Khmer Rouge-supported united front against the Vietnamese.

Apparently Peking wants Sihanouk to lead a group backed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the West to negotiate with the Vietnamese while the Khmer Rouge continue their guerrilla warfare.

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Much as the Khmer Rouge forces dislike Sihanouk, and he them, they have been prodded by China to unite against "Vietnamese aggressors."

Prince Sihanouk's Peking visit also dovetails with a visit by Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila.

Diplomatic sources say the two may get together, with Madame Deng Yingchao, widow of the late Premier Chou En-lai, playing host. Madame Deng is well likely by the Thais and wields personal influence with Sihanouk.

The Thais have never trusted Sihanouk. Last year, before giving up a quest for support among exiled Cambodians, Sihanouk wanted to visit Khmer refugee camps in Thailand. But the Thais said no.

Even so other ASEAN countries would go along with the prince if he could find a political solution to Cambodia, So would France and the United States. Hanoi, for its part, says the "opera prince" has no role whatever to play. The situation in Cambodia, Vietnam says, is irreversible.

What about Sihanouk himself? His flip-flop moves make it difficult to judge. On July 15 he sent word from Pyongyang he is giving up politics. But just two weeks ago one of his aides was in Singapore for discussions. (Singapore maintains a standing invitation to Sihanouk.)

Moreover, Chinese officials have been meeting with French diplomats in Peking and Paris to persuade Sihanouk to keep an iron in the political fire.

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Peking's maneuvering, however, could prompt a response from Hanoi. The Vietnamese are past masters at behind-the-scenes finagling and could frustrate Chinese designs.

Whatever the outcome, Sihanouk's sideline role in Cambodia will likely to make news, if not shape events.

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