Return to Phnom Penh

November 21, 1991

What strange bedfellows the peace process in Cambodia makes. Norodom Sihanouk, the once and future king or president, returned to a palace restored for him, and announced that he should be a figurehead and that three top leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who murdered his children and grandchildren in the 1970s, should be tried for mass murder.

He omitted specificity on whether this should apply to the two Khmer Rouge members of the Supreme National Council, which he heads, the transitional regime that is making the peace. The first of these, Son Sen, former head of the army and secret police, returned to Phnom Penh as survivors in the city writhed in outrage and pain. It is hard to see how safety can be assured for him or his nominal chief, Khifu Samphan, whose return is expected soon. When Son Sen's troops took Phnom Penh in 1975, they drove its two million residents out into the countryside, where many died. The others remember.

The man of the hour in Cambodia is the young prime minister, Hun Sen, originally a Communist puppet of the Vietnamese conquerors in 1979. He says he is no longer a Communist. He suggested the people stone him for conferring with Son Sen. Prince Sihanouk suddenly called Hun Sen an adopted son. Previously, the prince and the Khmer Rouge and the conservative faction leader Son Sann, who has yet to return, were allied in hopes of toppling Hun Sen. The mercurial and unreliable old man of Cambodian politics has changed sides once again in hopes of keeping the Khmer Rouge from regaining authority. He is right, this time.

It doesn't sound as if all this can end the endless war, but the first U.N. peace-keeping troops have arrived and the dollar has dropped on the street black market as some confidence returned to the Cambodian riel. The peace process is under way. Although many had feared it would lead to a new Khmer Rouge takeover, and the return of the infamous Pol Pot, the actual return of factions has unleashed a new force on the Cambodian scene. This is the hatred of the Cambodian people for the Khmer Rouge, outweighing even their fear.

In the end, the Cambodian people are going to be a far tougher barrier to the return of Pol Pot to power than the ever-changeable Sihanouk is. There is a possibly relevant word for that. Some would call it democracy.

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