RACING against the onset of the rain season, convoys of United Nations trucks and buses are rumbling up the routes from Thailand to Cambodia, packed with refugees returning to their war-savaged country.
Some 350,000 Cambodians who fled the fighting in their homeland have been living in refugee camps in Thailand. UN officials would like to get the homeward flow of Cambodian refugees up to 30,000 a month. That would mean most of them would be out of the desolate refugee camps and resettled in their own country by the middle of 1993, and thus would be able to participate in elections Cambodia is scheduled to hold at that time to determine its future.
UN officials say the refugees are going home voluntarily. None are being pressured, but there are inducements. Drawing on an $880 million aid budget, the UN offers returning refugees kits to build simple homes, a $50-a-head cash payment, tools, training in new job skills, plus food to keep them going for a year.
If peace is really coming to Cambodia, better that the refugees should be leaving their unproductive lives in the camps of Thailand and going home. But that is a very big "if."
The UN with its refugee program in Thailand, and its peacekeeping operation in Cambodia, is in a race not only against the rains, but against the distinct prospect that the whole fragile peace process will collapse. If that happens, will 350,000 returned Cambodian refugees, plus new ones, come flooding back into Thailand? "That," says one UN official grimly, "is something we don't talk about."
But it's on the minds of the returning Cambodian refugees. Few of them are requesting repatriation to the areas controlled by the Khmer Rouge. Many are seeking resettlement in border areas whence they can quickly flee back to Thailand if things turn bad again.
The returning Cambodians hope that peace will be lasting. But they are all too aware of the reality: The present UN peace plan imposed on their homeland is fragile and fraught with peril.
The problem is the infamous Khmer Rouge, the pro-communist faction that, when it ruled Cambodia, turned it into a charnel house. It devastated the country, killed hundreds of thousands in a clear campaign of genocide.
Cambodia collapsed in civil war and suffered a violent invasion by Vietnam. Now it's emerging from these horrors with a rickety coalition of four diverse factions of which the Khmer Rouge is one. The United States gritted its teeth at the idea of including the Khmer Rouge, but the Khmer Rouge were too militarily powerful to be excluded. Now, while the three other factions are trying to make things work, the Khmer Rouge is intransigent and non-compliant with conditions of the UN peace plan.
The Khmer Rouge has not given the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia access to the areas it controls. The Khmer Rouge is not disbanding and disarming its troops as it is obliged to do under the peace accord it signed last year. Unless all four parties demobilize their troops, it will be impossible to hold the free national election planned for next year.
The Khmer Rouge attempts to justify its stonewalling by charging that Vietnam has not really withdrawn all of its troops from Cambodia - part of the peace deal.
But skeptics think the Khmer Rouge is simply trying to subvert the peace process and expand its territory and power.
The four Cambodian factions are due to meet again today to try to break the logjam, but few familiar with Khmer Rouge tactics hold out much hope. If the Khmer Rouge continues blocking the process, what happens next?
The UN has been taking a kid-gloves approach to the Khmer Rouge. Indeed, in an astonishing rebuke to the members of his own team in Cambodia, UN undersecretary-general for peacekeeping Marrack Goulding told them last week to stop criticizing Khmer Rouge non-cooperation to the press.
Others are less patient. US Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger gave the Khmer Rouge a public tongue-lashing at a top-level conference on the Cambodian problem in Tokyo last week, and the French are talking of sanctions against the Khmer Rouge, cutting it off from UN aid and attempting to isolate it.
It is the tough line that ought to prevail.