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New book recalls another tough series of negotiations

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THE STUMBLING BLOCK

The late Son Sen and Im Sopheap, members of the Khmer Rouge negotating team, at 1991 peace talks in Pattaya.

BY THE mid-1980s it was becoming increasingly obvious that there could be no military

victory for either side in Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge insurgents and their "Democratic Kampuchea" partners (the

CDGK, a coalition of KR, KPNLF and royalist "resistance") never captured

a single town of any size during the course of the war against Phnom Penh from 1979

till the Paris Peace Agreement signed in 1991.

It was a low-intensity war fought largely in remote jungle areas. Phnom Penh was

never threatened.

But after seven years of Vietnamese offensives, the crack divisions of the best army

in Asia were unable to achieve anything more than a containment of Pol Pot's guerrillas.

With a growing realization of the battlefield stalemate and a changing international

climate that favored a settlement of the Cambodian conflict, the long road to peace

began sometime around 1987.

In this collection of his weekly chronicles for the Bangkok Post, Belgian journalist

Jacques Bekaert has provided a stimulating and informative coverage of the peace

process.

Bekaert is no armchair analyst. His datelines are constantly changing: Paris, Phnom

Penh, Hanoi, Bangkok, in Aranyaprathet covering the war on the Thai-Cambodian border,

in Kampot being driven around town with People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) Prime

Minister Hun Sen at the wheel, in Jakarta at the preliminary peace talks, in Kampong

Speu inspecting a tank division.

Hun Sen's first meeting with Prince Norodom Sihanouk in Paris December 3, 1987, is

characterized by the author as a historic encounter that set the peace process rolling.

However, the later Indonesia-sponsored "cocktail diplomacy" of the four

warring factions usually ended in deadlock. Their lack of agreement is evenly judged

by Bekaert to be a failure of all parties to make concessions for the sake of peace.

But this conventional Western view - that of impatience with the Khmer factions who

can't get their act together - misses the main point.

Time and again peace talks broke down because Phnom Penh called for clear guarantees

that Vietnamese withdrawal must be linked to the non-return of the Khmer Rouge. Furthermore,

a peace agreement should have excluded the most notorious leaders of the genocidal

regime. The Khmer Rouge delegates predictably blocked the discussion and constantly

vetoed all use of the "G" word - genocide.

While on the one hand the author acknowledges "the Khmer Rouge remain the main

obsession, the great fear of the [the State of Cambodia] regime and the majority

of the people in Cambodia", he fails to draw the obvious conclusion.

The peace talks were floundering because the Khmer Rouge had not changed their spots.

They showed not a flicker of remorse for the genocide of 1.7 million Cambodians and

would only sign a peace agreement on the condition that the international community

engaged in an act of collective amnesia about the killing fields. On this issue they

were backed by China, and most Western governments (already implicated in the post-1979

aid and assistance to the Khmer Rouge along the Thai border) went along with Beijing

with few qualms about legitimizing the faction.

At the first round of the Paris Peace Talks in July 1989, Washington lined up with

China and ASEAN to support a Cambodia solution based on a quadripartite coalition.

These powers pressured Hun Sen to dissolve the State of Cambodia government in favor

of a coalition that would hand over 25% of the power to the Khmer Rouge.

The author rightly questions the viability of such a coalition with four co-ministers

of defense. But who questioned Washington's lack of concern about genocide and human

rights? Ironically, given Washington's belated interest in bringing Pol Pot to justice,

it was Hun Sen.

The 1991 Paris Peace Agreement with its extraordinary euphemism for genocide - "no

return to the unacceptable practices of the recent past" - did exactly that,

imposing a collective amnesia on the workings of UNTAC that ensured that the Khmer

Rouge would be accorded the same rights as all other factions, and a de facto immunity

from prosecution for crimes against humanity.

Why does the author maintain such a weak line on the Khmer Rouge genocide? He agrees

that "it would be very good for ASEAN and the international community to get

rid of the Khmer Rouge" but he argues "the Khmer Rouge are a convenience.

Immoral? Who ever said international politics are a moral competition?"

But being on the ugly side of morality contributed nothing to the avowed objectives

of ASEAN/US policy to pressure Vietnam to engage in a speedy withdrawal from Cambodia,

and provide for free elections and self-determination. Their inflexible and rigid

support of the Pol Pot gang provided Vietnam with the best-possible alibi for staying

in Cambodia.

Even after ten years of occupation, a great many Khmer people were deeply worried

when the Vietnamese army completed its withdrawal in Autumn 1989. Some of the Cambodians

who are anti-Vietnamese today were probably among those people who in 1989 expressed

their fears to Bekaert and hundreds of foreign media about the Vietnamese army leaving

Cambodia.

"Who will prevent the return of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge?" many Phnom

Penh residents queried.

The new factors that helped to break the diplomatic impasse and contribute to a new

climate were Hanoi's dramatic change of policies in 1986; Michael Gorbachev's arrival

as the new leader in the Kremlin at the same time pushing for a peace settlement;

and the appointment of Hun Sen who embarked on peace diplomacy with Sihanouk in Paris.

If ASEAN and the West had given more weight to humanitarian issues instead of their

Cold War mania, a ceasefire and peace talks could have started much sooner.

Bekaert's book also contains some interesting admissions of Vietnam's failures and

mistakes.

A Vietnamese official in Ho Chi Minh City told Bekaert that "we should have

got out of Cambodia a long time ago. Cambodia has been a painful lesson." After

liberating Phnom Penh from Pol Pot "we should have left Cambodia to the UN".

Indeed if only they had done so, Vietnam, instead of being vilified, could have withdrawn

with honor after three months and received the grateful thanks of the Cambodian nation.

Bekaert reports a conversation with a young Khmer in August 1992 at Phnom Penh's

Central Market: "We should get rid of all the yuon, we should make Cambodia

pure again." Similar statements roll off the lips of some 'Democracy Square'

activists today, especially those who desecrated the Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship

Monument.

Two Vietnamese families had just been massacred in Kampot at the time Bekaert talked

to the young man. After that tragedy only one Cambodian personality, King Sihanouk,

expressed his grief and condolences.

While Bekaert accepts the Cambodian complaint that Vietnamese appeared to enter the

country as they pleased, he reminds the Khmer s that "killing men, women and

children is not the answer. Cambodians should not blame everything on the Vietnamese."

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