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Out of the Heart of Darkness

Cambodia's brutal past has given way to hope, but the symbols and victims of war still remain

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CAMBODIA, like other places that have witnessed terrible things, seems to demand solemnity.

This country, the heartland of Southeast Asia, is where the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot spent almost four years trying to create a paradise of equals through murder and repression. In this century alone, the country has had to withstand a parade of interlopers - France, United States, China, and Vietnam - who successively used Cambodia for their own ends.

But Cambodia was also the scene of a remarkable multinational effort, brokered by the US, China, France, and other nations, that has left the Cambodians in charge of their country. Whatever the faults and failures of the operation to bring democracy to Cambodia, the election sponsored by the United Nations in May 1993 was an accomplishment of magnitude.

William Shawcross, a chronicler of some of Cambodia's grimmest days during the Vietnam War and after, wrote recently that he had ``rarely seen anything so moving as the joy with which ordinary Cambodians defied violence and intimidation and grabbed the opportunity the world gave them to express their wishes.''

Some of this exuberance lingers, but Cambodia still feels an uneasy balance between its brutal past and a calmer future. The government remains at war with the Khmer Rouge, again waging guerrilla warfare. The economic agenda is daunting. There are signs that the government, or at least the military, may once again be resorting to the violent intimidation of its critics.

The precariousness of the Cambodian transition is seen easily in Phnom Penh, a capital city of jarring contrasts.

In the main market, the clothing merchants do a good business selling T-shirts emblazoned with a sign warning, in Khmer and English, of the danger of land mines. Underneath a skull-and-crossbones symbol are the words ``Cambodia 94,'' as though the country were the host of a World Cup soccer match instead of an estimated 7 million explosive devices hidden in the soil.

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