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Why It's Important to Undo Cambodia's Coup

Illegal Hun Sen power grab can be reversed by a world community that pays 60 percent of the bills

Pragmatism is a great quality in political life. But the international community usually gets into trouble when, in the name of pragmatism, it chooses expediency and fudges on its promises in crisis situations. Invariably it ends up with much greater loss of blood or treasure - or both. Case in point: Cambodia.

In 1991 the United States helped broker the Paris accords, which produced a peace process in Cambodia and the framework for a new Cambodian state. A genuine election was held in 1993 under United Nations auspices to elect a new government, and the world has contributed some $6 billion to create and sustain the state-building effort.

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However, major aspects of the accords were not implemented. (Take note, Bosnia watchers.) Cambodia lost its strategic significance at the end of the cold war, and no country was prepared to bear the material and domestic political costs of carrying out the more difficult aspects of the agreements. The international community permitted Hun Sen, then ruler of Cambodia, to violate the peace agreements by refusing to cede authority of the major ministries he controlled. It also allowed him to disregard the election results. By intimidation he inserted himself into a government coalition as second prime minister to Prince Ranariddh, whose party won the election.

The international community also refused to disarm the private militias of the main political parties and did nothing to disarm the genocidal Khmer Rouge, which had boycotted the elections. King Sihanouk, who more than any single figure legitimized the Khmer Rouge in the early '70s, accepted the "realities" of Hun Sen's power.

TODAY we are witnessing the results of that failure. Hun Sen once again leads a brutal one-party domination of Cambodia. Long intent on gaining complete control of the country, he has moved swiftly in the past month to give the heave to his principal rival, Prince Ranariddh (now in exile), killed a number of the prince's chief lieutenants and principal opposition, and put perhaps the final nail in the coffin of the Paris accords, once acclaimed by the US as one of its great successes in East Asia.

Hun Sen also has mastered the lingo of our modern political life, professing devotion to democracy and human rights. At the same time, he has told the world to stop interfering in Cambodia, a country that can't survive without outside assistance. Not surprisingly, King Sihanouk once more announced his support for Hun Sen.

Some members of the world community again want to accept the "reality" of Hun Sen's control of government. They consider the previous government a failure (true), and believe Hun Sen will get things done. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose motto seems to be "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil," initially took a tough stand. But after Hun Sen rejected its mediation effort, some ASEAN members seem to be backtracking. Even the US was a little slow to deal with the coup.

Now the US has gotten its act together, taken a more pronounced stand, and sent former Rep. Stephen Solarz, one of the architects of the Paris accords, to try to generate a stronger international response. A crucial meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers with Western counterparts - including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - is scheduled for July 26 in Malaysia.

The US must not simply throw in the towel and accept Hun Sen and his opposition as the rulers of Cambodia. Indeed, it will not be easy convincing Vietnam, long a Hun Sen supporter, and quite possibly China, once a Hun Sen enemy and a previous defender of the Khmer Rouge, but now singing a different tune.

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What needs to be done is not a great mystery:

* The world must be better mobilized to speak and act with greater unity.

* The Paris accords must be defended. It is important both for the future of international agreements and for Cambodia. And it means a government freely chosen by the people and not under duress.

* The Paris conference should be reconvened immediately, with all the Cambodian parties invited to work out arrangements for an acceptable government to rule at the present time and to prepare for national elections early next year - elections that are not dominated by one party. A Hun Sen controlled government cannot be depended on for that.

* All budgetary aid to the Hun Sen controlled government must be suspended, though carefully vetted humanitarian aid should continue.

If the world walks away from the Paris accords and accepts Hun Sen's coup, we could see war and refugees once again on the Thai-Cambodian border.

None of the above will be easy, but the world has important leverage: It provides 60 percent of the Cambodian government's revenues. Acting decisively to preserve the Paris accords would be pragmatism of the truest kind.

* Morton I. Abramowitz, US ambassador to Thailand from 1978 to 1981, is acting president of the International Crisis Group.

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