From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge transformed Cambodia into a slave labor camp guarded by smiling adolescents who starved, shot and worked to death a million of their compatriots.

Now Khmer Rouge spokesmen call that a "mistake." Now they offer verbal assurances that such "unacceptable practices" would never again be repeated, if only for the simple reason that they would return to power as part of a coalition. They say they have abandoned Communism and have embraced Western democracy. They say they've changed leaders -- that Pol Pot is now director of an institute for defense studies.

No one believes them -- not their coalition partners, Prince Norodom Sihanouk and former prime minister Son Sann; not the Thais and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; surely not the Cambodian people; not the "international community," represented now in the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

Why then do Son Sann and Sihanouk, both devoted nationalists, accept an alliance with these monsters? Why have the Thais permitted and sometimes assisted Chinese arms to reach the Khmer Rouge forces and Western aid for non-Communist forces to be diverted to the Khmer Rouge? Why have the ASEAN nations worked to preserve Cambodia's seat in the United Nations for the coalition of Son Sann, Sihanouk and the Khmer Rouge? And why have the Western democracies, including the United States, supported ASEAN in its efforts?

The answer is that -- for lack of alternatives -- a convoluted diplomacy developed out of the effort to deal with the Khmer Rouge, the Chinese, the Vietnamese and Soviet military power in the region. Confronted with the possibility of Vietnamese military expansion on the one hand and Pol Pot's forces on the other, Son Sann, Sihanouk and ASEAN have tried to contain the Vietnamese by isolation and Pol Pot by association.

The hopes have always been what they are today -- that somehow the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge could be persuaded to agree to a cease-fire and elections; and that the international community of the United Nations, the permanent members of the Security Council -- someone -- would police a cease-fire and administer elections.

The plan requires that the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge agree to submit to the voters' decision. But why should anyone believe that either Khmer Rouge or the Hun Sen government currently ruling Cambodia will agree to processes that require such restraint in the use of force?

I have put that question repeatedly to Sihanouk, Son Sann and ASEAN officials. The answers always turn on a hope involving the "international community." They point to other places where elections have been held under international auspices. They don't doubt that, given a chance, the Cambodians would make the choice people everywhere make -- one against dictatorship.

Who doubts it? But creating the opportunity for them to choose is another matter. Sihanouk, Son Sann and ASEAN leaders have estimated that the consolidation of Vietnamese power in Cambodia would be more certain and more permanent and evil than the risk of Pol Pot's return to power.

I do not know if their judgment is correct. I do know they have been less impressed than the West with the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia -- because they believe at least 40,000 troops are still in that country and because of the heavy colonization by Vietnamese during their occupation. Neither Sihanouk nor Son Sann underestimates the Khmer Rouge's military forces. The troops of each have been attacked and destroyed by Pol Pot's men on more than one occasion.

If ever there was a people confronted with a choice of evils, it is the Cambodians. Other governments seeking to influence events in Cambodia are also confronted with a choice of evils. The Vietnamese government remains almost as odious today as it ever has been. It not only put Hun Sen in place, it sustains his government.

The only way Hun Sen's government can build a positive reputation will be to agree to cooperation with an international effort. Nothing can build a positive reputation for the Khmer Rouge.

Will the change in U.S. policy -- withdrawing recognition from the Sihanouk-Son Sann-Khmer Rouge coalition and discussing issues with Vietnam -- help solve the problem? Some ASEAN officials fear it will leave the Khmer Rouge "a dangerous free agent." Some fear it will reduce the incentive for the Khmer Rouge and the Han Senn regimes to negotiate. Others think it gives the Vietnamese greater reason to cooperate than if the United States continued reflexively in a negative posture.

In fact, U.S. policy may make little difference. The Cambodian tragedy is rooted in the continuing hostility and intransigence of China and Vietnam. The Soviet Union has also contributed to this. Neither the Khmer Rouge nor the Hun Sen regime deserves support.

One hopes the Bush administration is clear about this.