BANGKOK -- Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's monarch in exile, once again is displaying his penchant for the unpredictable by pushing ahead with plans to meet in Paris next month with Hun Sen, prime minister of the Vietnamese-backed government in Phnom Penh.

Diplomatic observers, Indochina analysts and some of Sihanouk's backers are wondering whether the prince -- in his passionate personal search for an end to Vietnam's nine-year military occupation of Cambodia -- might strike a bargain with Hanoi in an attempt to end the Cambodian conflict and return to the throne he lost in 1970.

Sihanouk has been the leader of a three-party coalition -- backed by China, Southeast Asia's noncommunist nations and the United States -- fighting the Vietnamese occupation troops. The coalition's strongest member, the communist Khmer Rouge, ruled Cambodia from 1975 until the invading Vietnamese overthrew them early in 1979.

The prospects for a settlement of the Cambodian conflict have raised some fundamental questions. If Sihanouk does see a settlement within reach, would he be willing to scuttle the hated Khmer Rouge? Could any settlement work without Khmer Rouge participation? Would China's new, reformist leadership be willing to withdraw its long support of the Khmer Rouge?

Sihanouk's alliance with the Khmer Rouge is one of political convenience, some analysts noted. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, presided over a reign of terror when they ruled Cambodia. Several of Sihanouk's children died when Pol Pot depopulated the urban centers and forced hundreds of thousands of Cambodians into labor camps. Hanoi claims it invaded Cambodia to oust Pol Pot.

"If they work something out, it will not be the first time Sihanouk and the Vietnamese have worked something out," said Prof. Sukhumbhand Paribatra of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University. "He could do it. He's done it before."

Sihanouk has already said publicly that he turned down an offer of a high-level position in Cambodia's Vietnamese-backed communist government. His spokesmen here insist that any talks with the Hanoi-backed Cambodian government will stay within the framework already spelled out by Southeast Asia's noncommunist states, ASEAN, and the Sihanouk-led resistance that is battling the Phnom Penh government. That is, that any future Cambodia be "free of foreign forces, neutral and noncommunist."

But some analysts here are saying they can see the broad outlines of a possible agreement, since Sihanouk and Hanoi appear to be voicing the same general themes. "Sihanouk's position and the {Hanoi-backed Cambodian government} position have come closer," said one Thai Indochina analyst. "They are both talking about 'a neutral country,' in form if not in substance."

A senior Thai government official here said: "Everybody agrees that Cambodia should be neutral. The word 'neutrality' seems to be emerging from every corner." This official suggested that Thailand would be willing to accept a communist or socialist Cambodia within Hanoi's orbit.

Sihanouk, these analysts said, might be tempted to reach a compromise for a future government in Phnom Penh that included himself, the Vietnamese-backed regime and another, smaller noncommunist faction in the resistance, but excluded the Khmer Rouge.

The possible results of a Sihanouk-Hun Sen meeting still seem elusive at this early stage. But Vietnam's longstanding position has been that Cambodia was an issue to be negotiated among the country's factions. Recent visitors to Hanoi said Vietnamese officials were giving "great stress" to the meeting as a potential breakthrough that could lead to a political settlement. {In Beijing Friday, a Vietnamese Embassy spokesman said, "We support this meeting regardless of what comes out," Reuter reported. If the talks bear fruit, the spokesman said, Hanoi would be willing to join an international conference to end the conflict.}

Other analysts, however, are more cautious. Hopes for a peace process have been raised in past years, only to dissipate with the inability of the Cambodian factions to negotiate.

"I can't see what's going to come out of it," said one western diplomat who follows Indochina. "They have a meeting -- and then what?"

A Thai government official who declined to be named said, "I don't know whether the talks can serve any purpose. . . . We feel that the problem cannot be resolved without talks between the Cambodians and the Vietnamese."

Sihanouk, who arrived in Paris last week, has set three conditions for a meeting with the Vietnamese-backed prime minister: Hun Sen must request an audience in writing, he cannot attend in his capacity as prime minister, and a tape-recorded transcript of the meeting must be made public immediately. Sihanouk apparently set that last condition to allay fears of his resistance coalition partners and of ASEAN that he has become impatient with the continuing conflict and might be tempted to make a secret deal with Hun Sen.

Hun Sen has apparently already agreed to the first two conditions, diplomats here said. He is also likely to agree to the third, they said, since Hun Sen and the Vietnamese are eager for the meeting, which would be the first face-to-face contact between the two Cambodian sides since the Vietnamese invasion nine years ago.

Previously Sihanouk had said that any meeting had to be with the Vietnamese, since Hanoi still keeps an estimated 140,000 troops in Cambodia to prop up Hun Sen's regime.

Sihanouk took virtually all of his backers by surprise in April when he announced that he was taking a one-year leave of absence as the head of the resistance coalition -- although many analysts called the decision a shrewd move to give the prince more flexibility to pursue his own one-man peace process.

Sihanouk has stayed largely secluded from the press, but in recent public statements has said he would not betray the resistance coalition should he meet with Hun Sen.