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A Realistic US Policy on Cambodia

THE collapse of the international conference on Cambodia in late August and the withdrawal of the Vietnamese troops on Sept. 27 have left Cambodia in a precarious position. While the Phnom Penh regime and the three opposition factions - the noncommunist forces of Prince Sihanouk and of Son Sann, and the communist Khmer Rouge - test each other's strength on the battlefield, the United States and other interested nations are reexamining their policies on the Cambodian situation. The US position is seemingly contradictory: Support Prince Sihanouk, but oppose the Khmer Rouge, which the prince says is an integral component of any solution. Critics of this policy have forwarded arguments to increase support for the noncommunist forces in the opposition coalition, to promote a new coalition of the noncommunist forces and the Phnom Penh regime against the Khmer Rouge, or to accept the legitimacy of Hun Sen and Heng Samrin as the rulers of Cambodia.

The US has three basic interests in Cambodia: the prevention of a return to power by the genocidal Khmer Rouge; the establishment of a pluralistic society that will uphold the human and civil rights of the Cambodian people; and the creation of stability, which will foster the conditions for social and economic reconstruction and development.

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The suggestion that the US just increase its political, economic, and military support of the noncommunist forces does not adequately reflect American interests in Cambodia or the complexities of the situation there. Rather, it continues the cold-war, oppose-communism-at-any-cost mentality.

Assumptions made in support of this position - e.g., that the noncommunist forces can be built into an effective fighting force of 60,000 to 70,000 troops within a few months and be victorious over both the Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh regime (with 35,000 and 40,000 troops, respectively) - are seriously flawed.

This position does not reflect the historic inability of the noncommunist forces to achieve these results, the battle experience of the other two forces, nor the political qualities of the noncommunist forces - many of them were in the corrupt, repressive Lon Nol regime, and Sihanouk himself was once deemed unworthy of US support. Meanwhile, the recent efforts of Hun Sen to reform Cambodian society are basically ignored.

That is not to say that the changes that the Phnom Penh regime have made over the past year or so make it worthy of acceptance as the sole alternative to the Khmer Rouge. While such a policy might prevent a return to power by the Khmer Rouge and might lead to a more stable situation in Cambodia, there is little hope that it will spawn a more pluralistic society in the near future.

The option that best promotes US interests is a coalition of the noncommunists and the Phnom Penh regime. This presents the best hope of preventing a return of the Khmer Rouge. Through compromise, it creates a pluralistic political structure that would give the Cambodian people at least a modicum of representative government. It would also lead to economic and social stability through preservation of the bureaucratic structures, so that reconstruction and development can commence.

To achieve this new coalition, the US and its allies must convince Prince Sihanouk to break with the Khmer Rouge and return to Phnom Penh. This coalition would have to give the noncommunists more power than merely symbolic government positions, while at the same time recognizing the achievements made by the current government. To do this, the US, Japan, ASEAN nations, and others should continue political support for Sihanouk, but also offer political and economic incentives to the Hun Sen government to help create a more pluralistic regime.

Cambodia under the new coalition should be neutral, so that it does not present a threat to either Chinese or Vietnamese security interests. The US and its allies could present to Vietnam a package of economic and political incentives that give Hanoi an interest in abiding by this Cambodian solution; they could also give China a way to end its military support of the Khmer Rouge.

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Given the nature and power of the Khmer Rouge, it is doubtful that peace will reign anytime soon in Cambodia, whichever policy the US follows. Nevertheless, by adopting a policy that reflects US interests and working with its friends - many of which have interests in Cambodia parallel to America's - to achieve the goals mentioned above, the US will contribute in a positive way to a region that has suffered more than 40 years of war.

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