Over the past year, the rival participants in Kampuchea's bitter 10-year-old guerrilla war have been moving gingerly toward a political settlement. The government in power, supported by neighboring Vietnam, had agreed with a three-party coalition of resistance groups that elections would be held soon after Vietnam withdrew its army of between 50,000 and 70,000 troops from Kampuchea. But at a peace conference in Indonesia in February, they could not agree on the composition of an interim government. And the Vietnamese refused to withdraw before the end of 1990 unless other foreign powers— most notably China—cut off aid to the resistance coalition. Last week, however, the Vietnamese decided to set their own deadline. In a joint declaration with the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, the Vietnamese announced plans to withdraw—unconditionally—all their troops by Sept. 30. That was 15 months earlier than originally planned—and more than 10 years after the Vietnamese installed a puppet regime in Phnom Penh, Kampuchea’s capital.
The announcement was immediately criticized by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the leader of the resistance coalition, which the United Nations recognizes as the legitimate government of Kampuchea. Vietnam, he said, “has no right to decide the destiny of Kampuchea.” But the Vietnamese, who have already withdrawn nearly two-thirds of their 200,000-strong invasion force, are plainly anxious to leave. Their Kampuchean occupation stands as a political barrier to obtaining urgently needed financial aid from the West. The major external powers involved in the conflict—the Soviet Union, which helps finance the Vietnamese occupation, and China, the main supporter of the resistance coalition—have been pushing for a settlement, a vital step in improving SinoSoviet relations. In their haste to get out, the Vietnamese are clearly willing to gamble that if the Kampuchean factions do not agree on an interim government before September, the Phnom Penh government of Prime Minister Hun Sen will be able to hold power on its own.
But many observers say that the government could fall to the most powerful faction within the Kampuchean resistance, the Khmer Rouge. That faction held power in Kampuchea from 1975 to 1979 and is blamed for the slaughter of at least one million people. Although the Khmer Rouge has tried to reform its image, many observers remain skeptical. “Once the Vietnamese withdraw, anything is possible,” said Kim Nossal, a political scientist who specializes in Canadian foreign policy at McMaster University in Hamilton. “My greatest fear is that the Khmer Rouge will come back and we will see a return of the killing fields.”
Last week, Vietnam and Kampuchea invited Canada, India and Poland to form a monitoring commission that would verify the Vietnamese withdrawal. (The three nations served a peacekeeping role in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in 1954.) That, said Nossal, would enable Vietnam to escape responsibility for a resurgence of the Khmer Rouge. In Ottawa, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that Canada will have to negotiate with the parties to the conflict before deciding whether to participate.
One of Canada’s preconditions is that all the parties support the peacekeepers, Clark said. But Sihanouk has already said that he favors a peacekeeping force monitored by the UN. Diplomats in Hanoi said that the resistance coalition would prefer to establish an interim government with the three resistance factions and Hun Sen sharing power—before the Vietnamese withdraw. “The resistance,” said one diplomat, “wants a comprehensive settlement, including a ceasefire and elections, and real power-sharing between [Phnom Penh] and the resistance. They won’t like this new Vietnamese-Phnom Penh formula.”
If no political settlement is reached, the ability of the Hun Sen regime to defend itself will depend largely on how much aid China and other suppliers—including the United States and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—will provide to the resistance forces. So far, China has said that it would suspend aid to the coalition only after the Vietnamese withdrawal has been verified. Although the pullout appears unconditional, Vietnam did include an escape clause. It warned that if foreign aid to the resistance continues after the withdrawal, Phnom Penh reserves the right to call for foreign intervention.
Last week, Hun Sen announced that he and Sihanouk had agreed to meet for further negotiations on May 2. But another meeting later next month may have even more bearing on the future of the Kampuchean conflict. On May 15, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev is scheduled to arrive in Beijing for the first Sino-Soviet summit in 30 years. But although Soviet and Chinese leaders may agree to take an active part in the peace process, they may also choose to let Kampuchea’s warring factions thresh over their differences on their own.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.