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Tuesday, July 25, 2000

Making peace in Cambodia

Staff writer
EXITING INDOCHINA: U.S. Leadership of the Cambodia Settlement & Normalization with Vietnam, by Richard H. Solomon, with a foreword by Stanley Karnow. United States Institute of Peace Press, 2000, 113 pp. (paper).

Contrary to popular opinion, America's involvement with Vietnam did not end with the hurried evacuation of U.S. personnel from the Saigon embassy rooftop in 1973. Washington continued to be involved in Indochinese affairs throughout the '80s and '90s, and played an integral role in the Cambodian peace process that culminated in the May 1993 elections.

Richard Solomon, a former ranking State Department official who was personally involved in those negotiations and who now serves as president of the U.S. Institute of Peace, explains that U.S. role in "Exiting Indochina." Solomon argues that the United States was the most neutral of all the major powers taking part in the negotiations and could therefore act as an intermediary in the U.N. process.

It was a challenge, given "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" mentality that dominated Indochinese politics. Vietnam and Cambodia were historical enemies, as were Vietnam and China.

As a result, Beijing backed the Khmer Rouge against the Hun Sen regime that Hanoi had installed in Phnom Penh.

At the same time, the Soviet Union and China had ideological differences that pushed them to fight through their local proxies. France was forever angling to restore some of its influence over the region, and Australia envisioned itself as a new regional power.

Only Washington, it seemed, had no ulterior interests -- although it had outstanding issues with Hanoi, in particular the fate of the thousands of U.S. soldiers still missing in action from the war.

Washington's role was also complicated by the domestic debate with the U.S. over the morality of supporting the Khmer Rouge's entrance into the government. Solomon argues that there was no alternative, given China's support for the KR.

Moreover, the peace agreement committed the KR to settlement of political disputes through the ballot, not the bullet, a process that it was bound to lose.

In other words, participation tied the murderous group's hands, although as it turned out, the KR turned its back on the election process and and retreated to its fiefdom in the northwest of the country where it continued its reign of terror.

He also points out the diplomatic sleight of hand included in the wording of the July 1990 agreement that formed the basis of the settlement. It called for a Supreme National Council made up of "individuals" representing the full range of Cambodian society, a phrasing that avoided recognizing organizations, like the KR.

Solomon also credits the changing international environment for the outcome. "It is clear that the parallel and mutually reinforcing reconciliations of 1991 between Beijing and Moscow, and Beijing and Hanoi, made possible the fundamental political deals that enable the Perm Five's peace plan for Cambodia to fall into place."

He concludes that China was the big winner in the settlement. The deal stabilized a sensitive strategic area on its border, relieved Beijing of the burden of supporting the KR, ended Vietnamese hopes of dominating Indochina and positioned China to have increased influence throughout Southeast Asia.

The process was salutary for Japan as well, even though its attempt, with Indonesia, at a diplomatic intervention in 1990 was "a diversion from the U.N. process."

Solomon notes that Tokyo's role in helping implement the peace agreement and running the elections was its first real contribution to the U.N. peacekeeping process and its "friendly" relations with Hun Sen allow it to continue to exercise influence to this day.

At a little over 100 pages, it is difficult to take "Exiting Indochina" as anything more than a quick skate across the diplomacy behind the Cambodian settlement. That makes it no less valuable for the insights it provides, but these are glimpses at best.

Other participants might take issue with Solomon's conclusion that only the U.S. could make a deal. A definite judgment awaits the opening of archives in Beijing, Hanoi and Phnom Penh. Don't hold your breath.

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