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Vigil in Cambodia

It has been three years since a United Nations-sponsored election brought a measure of calm and renewal to Cambodia.

The Southeast Asian country's coalition government combines the royalists, led by the sons of King Norodom Sihanouk, with elements of the former Vietnam-backed Communist regime that ruled from 1979-92. The new Constitution, drafted with UN help, has brought democratic processes and new freedoms - but they constantly grate against old habits of repression and autocracy.

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And in the jungles, remnants of the Khmer Rouge, Marxist radicals who gave Cambodia one of the century's worst episodes of mass murder, still carry on a low-level insurgency.

Cambodians have suffered as much as any people on earth, and they deserve a brighter future. But a pall is cast by the past, particularly the years 1975-78, when Khmer Rouge executioners took the lives of a million or more of their fellow Cambodians - including the best educated and those with connections to foreigners.

Western scholars, working on a grant provided largely by the United States Congress, are documenting the Khmer Rouge's killings. They've uncovered reams of material, including meticulously kept records of executions. The documents build an iron-clad case against the perpetrators of Cambodia's "killing fields." But those men are not likely to face justice soon. The Khmer Rouge's remaining leadership, including its chief architect of murder, Pol Pot, are holed up in remote hideaways with a guerrilla army.

Cambodians don't seem anxious to expose their past to the light of an international tribunal. Villagers live side by side with some of their former tormenters. The country's most powerful politician, Hun Sen, was once a Khmer Rouge officer before allying himself with the Vietnamese.

Perhaps Cambodia doesn't want, or even need, the public exercise of justice that seems so critical in Bosnia or Rwanda. The group hatreds, the potential for revenge and further war, don't rage there as in those other places. But Cambodia is no less a test of the world community's ability to help a country heal and move on. The UN invested $3 billion and countless thousands of hours in its peacemaking/democracy-building project in this often-ravaged corner of Asia.

Now that the tensions have lowered, the temptation is to let the country slip from view. But the world has to keep watching and helping.

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