The U.N. as king

Georgie Anne Geyer

November 20, 1991|By Georgie Anne Geyer

WASHINGTON — OF ALL the extraordinary emotional events of the past few years, few have exceeded the return this week of the legendary Prince Sihanouk to Cambodia.

The 69-year-old monarch, a white-haired figure now in place of the black-haired young prince, returned to his old capital of Phnom Penh, in olden days the most beautiful and storied city in Southeast Asia. He returned to the joy of saffron-robed Buddhist monks, classic Khmer dancers and jewel-encrusted silk costumes, and hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who remember all too well the years of the Khmer Rouge slaughter. That was what came after Sihanouk.

"I am very happy," the prince said in his high squeaky voice, as he completed his long journey home after nearly 20 years. Now he faced the daunting problems not only of rebuilding, but of reconciling his warring people, and perhaps even fighting the heinous Khmer Rouge again.

Sihanouk, the modern scion of the ancient Khmer dynasty, also immediately faces a new version of interdependence with the modern world -- and a formidable challenge.

In perhaps the most fascinating experiment yet in healing a torn country, while at the same time securing it the time to get over and defeat the horrors of its past, Sihanouk will for the time being remain only the formal head of state.

Into the foreseeable future, Cambodia will be run by the United Nations, in an extended intervention not seen since the Korean War 40 years ago.

Several hundred U.N. bureaucrats are already in Phnom Penh to run everything from the country's finances to defense and foreign relations. U.N. troops, mostly to date snappy Australians, are arriving, and several thousand of them will constitute the force that will defend the country.

The major problem, of course, remains that Cambodia is most threatened from within. The murderous Khmer Rouge -- who slaughtered at least a million Cambodians after taking power in 1975, all in the name of some perfect, utopian, agrarian Marxist society -- is in Sihanouk's coalition government that waits under the U.N. protections.

But the Khmer Rouge also have at least 30,000 battle-hardened fighters in the west of the country, and they are waiting for the time when they can steal the upcoming elections through their control of terrorized Cambodians in the remote areas they still dominate.

In the U.N.-brokered Cambodian accords that led to this poignant moment, we see a new kind of relationship between one nation and the nations of the world, one we might call an "intervention of interdependence."

Before, interventions were almost always undesired by the people of the country themselves. They were carried through by the intervening country for its own imperial, economic motives. Now, the intervention of the world body of nations is highly desired by troubled nations. Even the United Nations' tough demands are readily accepted. In short, the old paranoid nationalism that so characterized the Third World in the decolonizing period after World War II is all but dead, thanks to the terrible needs in many countries.

In Cambodia, for instance, one task the U.N.'s civil and military overseers will have is to try to keep the worst of the Khmer Rouge from returning to power, while at the same time somehow reconciling the Cambodian factions and peoples.

This need for what seems at first to be an impossible reconciliation of hating opposites we can now see like a constant strand across the globe. In Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola, Ethiopia, the countries of Eastern Europe and the republics of the Soviet Union, some kind of reconciliation either is being worked out or must be worked out.

And something else is happening. Many countries that fanatically kept foreigners out are now, out of utter desperation, urgently inviting them back, sometimes on any terms. One can start here with Zaire, which is now begging foreigners to stay on or even send troops, as the country falls into anarchy. Another one is little Croatia. There are many more.

So despite the cynics, there is evidence worldwide of the ingredients and stages of what indeed may be a "new world order." The play is just beginning, but so far, the critics grant it a tenuous "promising."

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