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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Nuon Chea emerges, as China card mulled

Nuon Chea emerges, as China card mulled

Nuon Chea emerges, as China card mulled

CHINA may be preparing to help broker a solution to Cambodia's current civil conflict,

observers say, citing Khmer Rouge offers to negotiate with the Phnom Penh government

"in a third country".

The offers follow an alleged KR meeting with Chinese officials in Thailand and a

short-lived rumor that Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot had been exiled to China. However,

a Bangkok Post report placed Pol Pot firmly in Anlong Veng.

Some analysts speculate that resistance commander Nhek Bun Chhay, who originally

told media that Pol Pot had fled to China, spread the rumor to punish Beijing after

learning of a $10 million Chinese loan to the Phnom Penh government. "[He] seems

a bit miffed about the obvious rapprochement between China and Cambodia," a

Western diplomat commented.

Bun Chhay himself denied any hidden agenda and said he was just repeating information

given him by his KR allies. "I had been told that by our brothers in [Anlong

Veng]; maybe he just came out to the Thai border to receive medical treatment or

something like that," he told the Post by telephone.

While Pol Pot himself may have not met the Chinese, there are persistent rumors that

the KR military chief Ta Mok met Chinese diplomats in Bangkok in late December.

Chinese spokespersons flatly denied any such meeting. Bun Chhay said he "had

just heard" this meeting happened but could not confirm it.

Mok's supposed meeting came shortly before he gave a Jan 4 interview to a Bangkok

Post reporter, in which he said he would be willing to negotiate with "anyone"

to end the war in Cambodia.

"He said the Khmer Rouge was ready to look to other countries, the US, ASEAN,

anyone," said Prasit Sangrungrueng, a Bangkok Post reporter, by telephone from

Bangkok. "He said he would like to forget past times and begin with a new policy."

This view was reiterated by his fellow KR cadre Nuon Chea - known as Brother No.2

in the Pol Pot regime - who emerged to give a brief interview, apparently his first

ever.

Chea has been a powerful figure in the KR for decades, but largely hidden in the

shadow of Pol Pot. Far less is known about him than about other KR leaders.

Chea was largely unheard of during the Pol Pot-Ta Mok split last year, leading to

the speculation that he was dead or gravely ill. Now that he has been confirmed alive,

and possibly well, experts suggest that he could emerge as the new political leader

of Anlong Veng. He has no known conflict with Mok, who is believed to be firmly in

charge of the KR military.

Chea told the Bangkok Post that "we want to take part in nation-building",

adding that the UN or other brokers would be welcome to mediate.

He specifically said he was willing to negotiate with the Phnom Penh government,

"preferably in a third country", and he suggested Thailand.

KR observers, meanwhile, speculate that China would have a key interest in any negotiations,

and possibly in giving exile to Pol Pot. Specifically, they suggest that China -

to prevent greater scrutiny of its role as the main foreign supporter of the KR during

the Pol Pot regime - would be keen to ensure that Pol Pot is not handed over to an

international tribunal.

On the prospect of China acting as a middleman in negotiations, observers noted that

China intimately knows Nuon Chea, Ta Mok and other senior KR officials, and has also

been forging close relations with Hun Sen and the CPP in recent times.

Nuon Chea ruled out Pol Pot being handed over to face an international tribunal.

"Even though he is our prisoner, we have to be moral, we have to protect him

from being taken."

Another wild card in speculation over possible negotiations is an aborted meeting

between former KR official Ieng Sary - who broke with the hardline rebels in 1996

- and King Norodom Sihanouk. The proposed meeting prompted speculation that Sary

might also be eyeing a role in peace negotiations, since he has ties to both sides

of the battleground.

However, Ee Chhean, the Pailin governor and vice-president of Sary's Democratic National

United Movement (DNUM), denied that his boss was involved. "Excellency Ieng

Sary has no relationship with Anlong Veng. I know his stance clearly and he is part

of the government." Chhean also denied any knowledge of Ta Mok's meeting in

Bangkok.

Sary's adviser Long Norin told the Post that Sary planned to meet the King on Dec

25 simply to thank him for his 1996 amnesty. The meeting was delayed because of Sary's

poor health but will be rescheduled, Norin said.

However, Sary's DNUM supports negotiations for all parties. "We like to use

the word 'meeting' and meet with all Khmer political parties and discuss how to find

a way of peace. Our movement is very happy to attend that kind of meeting,"

Norin said.

As scattered fighting continues with little progress in O'Smach - government troops

estimated they gained only 300 meters during one two-week engagement in December

- a negotiated settlement remains as one option.

Bun Chhay said his troops are still dug in at easily-defended high ground, after

a heavy government barrage in the leadup to the Jan 7 holiday. "I belive that

I can take care of O'Smach," he said.

But he hinted that he is growing weary of the war. "I have no plan to negotiate

with the government, but the word 'ceasefire' makes me very happy. And I really want

it... If we have a real referee, if we have a real witness, like the UN to be our

witness for a ceasefire, I would like to do that."

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