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Cambodia talks: cordial atmosphere and one modest proposal

In substance alone, the first day of the first full-scale peace talks on Cambodia yielded only one major proposal: a new offer to woo anticommunist Prince Norodom Sihanouk back to a communist-run Cambodia. But in all other aspects, including the fact that such talks took place at all, this meeting marks a turning point for the decade-long war in Cambodia.

That nine southeast Asian nations joined in talks on a regional security issue was considered a first by diplomats here. The nations are Cambodia (four factions), Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines.

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Equally historic is the fact that officials of Soviet-allied Vietnam and the Chinese-supported Khmer Rouge - once comrades in arms, now combatants in war - sat down for cordial talks. Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979, ousting the notorious Khmer Rouge regime.

The Cambodian talks opened after a year-long, tireless diplomatic effort by Indonesia. The get-together, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas said, was a chance for the parties to ``start talking to each other rather than talking past each other.''

The four Khmer factions include Hun Sen of the Hanoi-backed Cambodian government; former Cambodian ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk (represented by his son); Khieu Samphan of the communist Khmer Rouge; and Son Sann of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front.

The negotiations are expected to continue Tuesday and Wednesday, or ``as long as it takes,'' Mr. Alatas said.

Most of the eight-hour discussions consisted of an airing of differences, although Hun Sen put forth a seven-point proposal. Its major component was an offer to set up a ``national reconciliation council'' made up of the four Cambodian parties, led by Sihanouk. According to Hun Sen, such a council would implement any agreements reached between the Cambodian parties. It would organize general elections for a national assembly.

Last year Hun Sen offered Sihanouk the presidency of the National Assembly, a largely rubber-stamp legislative body in the Peoples' Republic of Kampuchia (Cambodia). Sihanouk quickly rejected the offer and demanded that Hun Sen's government be dismantled.

The new offer was seen by anti-Vietnamese diplomats as a way for Hun Sen and to appear conciliatory in these talks without seriously jeopardizing the status quo inside Cambodia.

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