PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA -- Drained by a nine-year guerrilla war and a battered economy, Cambodia's Vietnamese-backed leadership is now talking the language of political reform in an effort to end the country's internal conflict.
Although most western analysts remain skeptical, Cambodia's rulers are raising ideas and floating proposals which, on the surface, seem to contradict communist doctrine: direct elections, parliamentary democracy and political pluralism.
"If we are willing to attend a general election, it means we have some hope of winning it," said Khieu Kanarit, a member of Cambodia's Communist Party Central Committee. "If we lose an election, it will be our own fault. We have had nine years to consolidate."
Kanarit told foreign journalists who visited here last month that Cambodia's communist rulers were willing to become the opposition party if they lost in future elections. Cambodian leaders here insist, however, that the notorious Khmer Rouge, which held power from 1975 until 1979, must never be allowed to return to power. Up to 2 million Cambodians were killed during the Khmer Rouge's battle to seize and hold power.
Vietnam invaded Cambodia in late 1978 and set up a surrogate regime here. An estimated 140,000 Vietnamese troops remain in Cambodia.
The promise of elections is part of agreements reached so far between Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Vietnamese-backed government here and resistance leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
After meeting late last month near Paris, the two agreed in principle that general elections could be held under international supervision and timed to coincide with a two-year phased withdrawal of all Vietnamese troops, according to reports of the meeting released here and in Bangkok.
The recent diplomatic flurry comes at a time of geopolitical developments that could have more impact on the eventual settlement of Cambodia than any agreement reached at the negotiating table between the feuding Khmer factions.
The Soviet Union, Vietnam's principal backer, has proposed a summit meeting with China, which supports the Cambodian resistance. Hanoi's leaders have long been fearful that the Soviet Union may abandon Vietnam in any Sino-Soviet rapprochement. Also, diplomats believe Moscow's announced intention to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan may set an example for Vietnam.
Diplomats say they believe the geopolitical shifts may have increased pressures on all sides to reach a settlement before players in Moscow and Beijing settle it for them.
It was unclear how the Cambodians expect to hold free elections and prevent the Khmer Rouge from participating. Publicly, Cambodian and Vietnamese officials and diplomats in the region have voiced confidence that the Khmer Rouge is so reviled it could never be voted back into office. Privately, however, some conceded that Khmer Rouge forces may still have some appeal in the countryside, or at the very least, may be able to win elections in areas they now control by force.
Many outsiders, including western analysts, are dubious of Cambodia's seeming new flexibility on the promise of elections. Most analysts said they doubt that Vietnam would be willing to allow a radical experiment with pluralism in a communist country that Hanoi considers inside its political orbit. Others questioned whether the Soviet Union would allow a Cambodian experiment with multiparty pluralism.
But some diplomats in Bangkok believe that Vietnam is so anxious to end its costly nine-year occupation that Hanoi's leadership may have become more flexible about the future shape and form of the Cambodian government -- as long as that government does not attack Vietnam's border and is not closely aligned with Hanoi's main enemy, China.
"The Vietnamese actually may be less paranoid now about the character of the government in Phnom Penh," said one Bangkok-based western diplomat. He said the Cambodians, in their recent statements about elections and multiparty pluralism, "may be trying to convey that Vietnam is now prepared to accept solutions that in the past have been considered heresy."
Reporters who recently visited Ho Chi Minh City heard several Vietnamese officials repeat their pledge to withdraw all Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in 1990. But at the same time, Vietnam's leaders acknowledged publicly for the first time that the Cambodian conflict is draining money and energy from Hanoi's domestic economic reform.
"Vietnam is a country that has suffered a lot," said Vietnamese Communist Party leader Nguyen Van Linh. "We have to spend a large part of our budget to build an army, but we are forced to do that."
Sihanouk has resigned as president of the three-party Cambodian resistance coalition, apparently to increase his flexibility in pursuing peace talks. His coalition partners, the noncommunist Khmer People's National Liberation Front and the communist Khmer Rouge have both refused to participate in the peace talks with Hun Sen.
Sihanouk has proposed something approaching French-style parliamentary democracy and free elections for Cambodia. Cambodian leaders interviewed here would not specify whether Sihanouk's model is the same as their own.
"As to the political structure, it has to be discussed with him, whether you want it to be the Kingdom of Kampuchea, the People's Republic of Kampuchea, or Democratic Kampuchea," said Vice Premier Chea Soth, a powerful member of the ruling Politburo.
Democratic Kampuchea was the name of the Khmer Rouge government ousted by the Vietnamese invasion force. The current government is the People's Republic of Kampuchea.