Washington -- WITH THE announcement last week that the legendary Prince Sihanouk will return once more to try to lead Cambodia, my thoughts were jarred with poignant memories of the man.
It was 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. We correspondents in Saigon loved to go to Cambodia then, because it was so incredibly beautiful and so mythically peaceful. And Norodom Sihanouk, the country's autocratic but wistfully charming leader, was always a delightful sovereign to interview.
This day, a group of us journalists had gone with him to the northern city of Battambang, where he was showing us through one of his handsome motels (he had learned to love motels while traveling in the U.S.; don't ask me why). We were moving through the rooms, drinking champagne on our funny little trip, when he made a "toast" that was as strange as his country was to become.
"Yes, this is beautiful now," he said, a twisted kind of expression to his mouth. "But soon we all shall die."
A year later, I was interviewing him alone in Phnom Penh. We were talking about the large numbers of Cambodian students who were being educated in France, and Sihanouk shook his head worriedly as he spoke about his concerns.
"They are learning a strange kind of French Marxism, which they are mixing with our ancient Khmer mysticism," he told me. "I have now cut off the students going there."
Then he paused. "But it may be too late," he added somberly.
As it happened, it was too late. Pol Pot, with his disturbingly Buddha-like smile, already was one of those deracinated Cambodian students in France. In the '50s, 20 years before he would come to power, he had written his paper (much as Adolf Hitler had early and without public note written "Mein Kampf") outlining how he would revolutionize peaceful Cambodia into a utopian, agrarian Marxist state of anonymous cipher-humans whose "names" would be only the letters of the ancient Khmer alphabet.
One remembers, too, the mood in the official American military and political offices in Saigon. Most of the officials just did not like Sihanouk, whom they often called "Snooky." This was the time of the hard-liners, and most of the Americans could not forgive him for not being on "our side." That that was ridiculous -- that he was doing everybody a huge favor by keeping Cambodia independent in the midst of the madness -- was not a popular idea, except with us journalists.
Now, for the first time since Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge took over in 1975, on the heels of the destabilization of Cambodia by American bombing, there is once again hope. We know now that Cambodia's three major warring factions signed a peace treaty on Oct. 23 in Paris, ideally to be followed by the demobilization of rival armies, the repatriation of 350,000 refugees and elections by mid-1993.
But is any of this real? Are we not perhaps only headed toward another takeover by the Khmer Rouge, with Pol Pot, still smiling with that slightly crazy look in his pictures, in charge and his 50,000 to 100,000 armed followers in power? It is easy to be pessimistic, but perhaps it is also too easy.
For this agreement, made possible only by the withdrawal of Soviet influence and arms flow in the world, and by patient Western diplomacy, is akin to others that have worked out in the post-Cold War world -- a world that is admittedly imperfect but does leave some room for moderate solutions.
Although the 68-year-old Sihanouk, who lost several children to the Khmer Rouge terror, will return as head of the government, in truth the United Nations will run the country's defense and foreign affairs in accord with the Supreme National Council, which includes representatives from the three Cambodian factions. The U.N. also will run the elections scheduled for 1993.
No one could possibly have any confidence in the Khmer Rouge, and the United States and the Europeans agreed to their taking part in the government only "because they're there." But, at the very least, the new agreement now brings the entire world -- and its eyes and influence -- into the formerly closed corridors of Cambodia. Reasonably free elections will open the country even more, and the Pol Pots of the world do not thrive in the sunlight.