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Cambodia's Best Hope

THE Khmer Rouge is on the move. Recently, it attacked the Cambodia's second largest city, Battambang. Khmer Rouge claims to have captured Battambang are probably exaggerated. But the attack itself is evidence that the disciples of Pol Pot - the Khmer Rouge leader who masterminded a reign of terror in the late '70s - are growing confident.

These battle-smart guerrillas wouldn't be pushing ahead if large numbers of Vietnamese soldiers, supposedly disguised as Cambodians, still stood in their way - as skeptics have suggested. Vietnamese advisers may remain. But there's little doubt that last fall's pullout by Vietnam left government troops face to face with the Khmer Rouge.

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Given the grisly history of Khmer Rouge rule, one might assume international support for the government. But this is the regime installed by the Vietnamese back in 1979 when they chased Pol Pot from Phnom Penh. Its legitimacy has never been recognized by much of the world community, and by the United States in particular.

Was this regime an improvement over its predecessor? Hasn't it taken steps to liberalize Cambodia's economy and politics? Hasn't Prime Minister Hun Sen shown an openness to internationally monitored elections?

Unfortunately, such questions have had little role in shaping policy toward Cambodia. The US still adamantly supports the two small noncommunist opposition factions allied to the Khmer Rouge in the belief that they can help pressure Hun Sen into a power-sharing agreement. The Khmer Rouge couldn't be happier with the US stance.

Diplomats in the region, notably the Australians, are working on a plan to put Cambodia under United Nations administration while elections are organized and held. This approach is worth pursuing, and only the Khmer Rouge, which would get trounced in an election, flatly rejects it.

But a UN trusteeship in Cambodia would be hard to implement and expensive. A more practical idea might be application of the Namibia model, with the present government staying in place until an election can be held and the machinery of a new government set in motion.

The fighting is constricting room for diplomatic maneuver. The Khmer Rouge is trying to retake power the old-fashioned way, through war. Those blocking its way - notably the Hun Sen government - must be embraced as partners in forging a new, more democratic Cambodia free of war and terror.

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