IN THE LATEST stage of Cambodia's painful passage toward peace, the interested outsiders collected the warring parties in Paris and leaned on them hard to accept the United Nations plan. The parties moved forward but irregularly. For instance, they broke the impasse that had developed over who will lead the interim body that will embody Cambodian sovereignty while the U.N. gets the country running and organizes elections. But they broke it essentially by finessing it, and while they did conduct a discussion of the issues, there is still no agreement on a formal text. The war, meaning chiefly a relentless Khmer Rouge drive for a military victory, goes on.

The difficulty lies where it has lain since the United Nations first undertook to undo Vietnam's decade-old takeover of Cambodia -- a takeover which many Cambodians see to this day as aggression by their traditional foe, even though it had the merciful effect of ousting the genocidal Khmer Rouge. The Hun Sen government sitting in Phnom Penh is a Vietnamese creation, notwithstanding its sometime effort to put on a face of reform. The other three Cambodian factions, including the Communist Khmer Rouge and two far less well-armed non-Communist groups, resist it. Hun Sen is under heavy international pressure to step aside and allow the U.N. plan to go into effect. But as the party formally holding power and occupying the capital, he wants to sell dear -- so dear, in fact, that some people fear he actually does not intend to sell at all.

In the absence of a working consensus among Cambodians, others have rightly turned to the Asian patrons of the principal parties in order to get those patrons to bring their influence to bear locally. China supports the Khmer Rouge, and Vietnam supports the Hun Sen government in a traditional Southeast Asian power struggle. That China and Vietnam both seek to broaden relations with the West gives them an extra incentive to cooperate and settle down that corner of Asia.

But that does not relieve the Cambodian parties of their own obligation to take advantage of outside diplomatic assistance and magnanimity while these commodities are still available. Earlier the outsiders were exhilarated by the promise of United Nations peacemaking, and now they are gathering for a further friendly diplomatic shove. But for all the suffering Cambodia has borne and for all the compassion it has earned as a result, others can do no more for Cambodia than what Cambodians now permit.