War and Human Rights in Cambodia

The human rights record of the Hun Sen regime in Cambodia has become an issue all the more urgent now in view of the current controversy over how to bring the civil war in Cambodia to an end. The Phnom Penh government is under attack both by the forces of the well-armed Khmer Rouge, still controlled by Pol Pot, and by two much smaller, non-Communist groups: the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, ostensibly led by former Prime Minister Son Sann but in fact deeply divided, and the militarily insignificant National Sihanoukist Army of Prince Sihanouk.

The US and China claim that the Cambodian government led by the thirty-nine-year-old Prime Minister Hun Sen is not legitimate because it was installed by Vietnam in 1979 and was then backed by a large occupying force of Vietnamese troops. The US has also pointed out that the government has many former Khmer Rouge officers among its leaders. While formally expressing its opposition to the return of the Khmer Rouge, the US until recently maintained that Pol Pot’s followers would be less dangerous inside the government, where they would have a stake in its policies, than as an armed opposition to it. The US therefore supported what became known as the “quadripartite solution,” under which the Hun Sen government would be dismantled and four parties—the government, the two non-Communist factions, and the Khmer Rouge—would share power until free elections were held.

Under this plan the Khmer Rouge would have partial control over the key ministries of defense, interior, and foreign affairs. In supporting this solution the US seemed more determined to oppose Vietnam and to avoid offending China, the chief backer of the Khmer Rouge, than to keep the Khmer Rouge from controlling Cambodia.

Since late 1989, however, both China and the US, which has been under criticism for its policies toward the Khmer Rouge, have endorsed the different plan of the Australian government, according to which the UN rather than the four parties would take over the administration of Cambodia on an interim basis and would supervise elections. Hun Sen himself has cautiously accepted some of the provisions of the Australian plan, but it is apparent that other members of his government have not.

While negotiations over the Australian proposal are being held among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, China, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union), other negotiations that may affect the Cambodian war are going on between China and Vietnam, as well as between the Hun Sen government and Thailand, through which the Chinese have been shipping arms, food, and other supplies to the Khmer Rouge. Moreover, the pressure on the Cambodian government to reach a settlement is growing, since the Soviet Union and the Eastern European nations, which have been the main source of aid to both Vietnam and the Hun Sen government, have been cutting back on their support.

The question of the legitimacy of the Phnom Penh government remains …

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