A visit to Cambodia can chill even a jaded observer. The horrors perpetrated upon that nation are still prominent in the minds of many Cambodians. But, on a visit to Phnom Penh and base camps earlier this year, I found Cambodia also to be a repository of hope. As the Tokyo talks among the four Cambodian factions appear to be at an impasse, we are reminded that the choice between horror and hope again hangs in the balance.
Cambodia treads a narrow road. The genocidal terror of the Khmer Rouge on one hand, or a protracted civil war that turns Cambodia into an Asian Lebanon, loom as real possibilities. Yet notwithstanding the events of the last two days, there continues to be optimism about the fate of this scarred nation if the United States applies its diplomatic muscle appropriately.
Cambodia has long been a pawn in great power and regional conflicts -- most recently between China and Vietnam -- that have destabilized it on one hand and fueled fierce nationalism on the other. Our challenge in helping to shape any future settlement is to achieve a truly independent and neutral Cambodia that is neither a surrogate for its neighbors nor a threat to them.
Unless this neutrality is achieved -- and an agreement is achieved that satisfies all the major regional powers, especially China and Vietnam -- the alternative is a protracted civil war, fueled from the outside.
I have concluded on the basis of recent conversations in Southeast Asia -- with Prince Sihanouk and Prime Minister Son Sann of the resistance, President Heng Samrin and Prime Minister Hun Sen of the People's Republic of Kampuchea -- and of soundings with Thai and Vietnamese officials, that Cambodians are united on one fundamental principle: that they alone should determine their own future.
Beyond this agreement, however, substantial differences separate the Cambodian factions. We witnessed this at the Jakarta talks as well as in Paris. In my opinion these divisions are so vast that the Cambodians on their own will not be able to forge a workable solution that does not involve ongoing bloodshed.
Accordingly, I believe the United States should continue to press for a comprehensive agreement among the Permanent Five members of the U.N. Security Council first. Once a Perm Five agreement is reached, the Soviet Union, China and the United States should consult with and exercise maximum pressure to bring along their respective clients to accept its terms. This tack was emphasized in the final communique' of the May 25-26 Perm Five talks.
In this regard, the regional initiatives should be welcome as a bridge to the great power discussions, but cannot be in place of them.
The shape of that settlement is critical. Only a neutral, popularly elected government can achieve legitimacy in the eyes of the Cambodian people and in turn the world community. Only such a government would put the Khmer Rouge in a position where, even if they didn't abide by the terms of the settlement, their "people's war" would be effectively nullified, in all likelihood reducing them to a corps of bandits isolated in the mountains along the Southwest-Thai border.
Any approach must take into account the stark reality that even the combined armies of the Vietnamese and the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea could not eliminate the Khmer Rouge as a potent guerrilla force after 10 years of war. Continued civil war only favors the Khmer Rouge. Therefore, a political settlement must be designed to accomplish what could not be achieved on the battlefield.
The United States should stick to basics, and rely on the positive power of democracy to ensure an appropriate outcome. We should press for elections with a U.N. presence and administration that best allows the Cambodian people to participate openly and freely in a neutral political environment. As a practical matter, this means working through the present civil service with sufficient U.N. participation to guarantee fairness. Moreover, there will have to be an adequate U.N. role in the countryside to buttress this effort.
The U.S. administration must remain engaged and continue to take a lead on this issue. With both regional and major-power consensus increasing, I believe it would be counterproductive to shift gears and adopt a new policy. Instead, we ought to take the U.N. framework discussed by the Perm Five, with the Congress providing bipartisan support, and make it work.
Finally, the United States should maintain its support for the noncommunist resistance (NCR) despite the fact that Westerners often have difficulty interpreting the diplomatic signals of the NCR and despite legitimate concerns their actions have at times raised.
The NCR is most representative of the Khmer nation as a whole, and can be the backbone of the truly neutral Cambodia that must lie at the heart of a lasting settlement. Our assistance to the NCR should be geared toward helping them enter the political fray under safe and fair conditions.
Any solution must address the great power dimension, the regional dimension, and conflicts among the Cambodians themselves. There are ancient and deep-seated animosities at play that will be difficult to overcome. But the United States, which said "never again" after the Holocaust of World War II, must not shirk its responsibility to prevent another tragedy. A brief but haunting 15 years ago, the world was silent while the Killing Fields occurred. As long as there remains a glimmer of hope that a political agreement may be forged that enables the people of Cambodia to know independence and self-determination, the United States should continue its efforts.
If we do this, then history just may record that after years of human tragedy and incalculable suffering, the Cambodian people finally knew peace.
The writer, a Democratic senator from Virginia, is on the Committee on Foreign Relations.