BEIJING -- After 12 years in lavish exile here, Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk may at last be able to savor the realization of his most fervent wish: to die on the soil of his strife-torn homeland.
The chameleonic, 68-year-old prince even may be able to achieve another personal milestone by celebrating in Cambodia next year the 40th anniversary of his marriage to the last of his six wives, French-Cambodian Princess Monique.
More important, peace may finally be possible for 8 million Cambodians who have suffered through more than a decade of devastating civil war and, before that, 3 1/2 years of genocidal rule under the Communist Khmer Rouge.
Whether all this actually will come about depends, for the moment, on a two-day meeting opening tomorrow in Beijing of the Cambodian Supreme National Council (SNC), a 12-member group headed by the prince and representing all four factions in the Cambodian struggle.
During the Beijing talks, the four parties -- the nation's Vietnamese-backed government and the trilateral resistance movement -- will attempt to settle lingering differences over a long-standing United Nations peace plan for Cambodia.
While progress toward acceptance of the U.N. plan has been stalled for two years, there is new hope that peace in Cambodia could be at hand.
That hope stems from breakthroughs adroitly brokered by Prince Sihanouk at a meeting late last month of the SNC in the tawdry Thai beach resort of Pattaya, where the four factions negotiated in earnest for the first time.
Among the major Pattaya agreements were: an unlimited cease-fire; cessation of foreign military aid to all combatants; establishing an SNC headquarters in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital; and allowing each of the three guerrilla groups also to set up residences there protected by their own forces.
The accord is a long way from full agreement on the U.N. peace plan, which essentially calls for the SNC to assume the government until a U.N.-supervised, free election leads to a new government.
Indeed, there already have been claims that the Khmer Rouge has broken the new cease-fire. Hun Sen,head of the Cambodian government installed by the Vietnamese after their 1979 invasion, also has not yet agreed to surrender to the SNC.
LTC And there is the ultimate, difficult problem of limiting the possible return to power of the Khmer Rouge, who killed perhaps more than a million Cambodians during their brutal rule from 1975 through 1979.
But longtime diplomatic observers of the struggle to achieve a lasting peace in Cambodia are nonetheless newly optimistic.
"Pattaya was a major development," said one Western diplomat here. "There are still a lot of minefields out there and a lot of unpredictable personalities, so things are very fragile and could end up stalled again very easily. But at last there's a momentum towards peace, at last things are moving quickly."
This momentum did not come about in a vacuum.
In a major shift in policy, China, the main arms supplier to the Khmer Rouge, has been distancing itself from them and has been pushing the resistance groups toward peace. Vietnam, desiring international aid long opposed by the United States, has taken similar steps and is trying to appease China, in a real sense its main antagonist in Cambodia.
But virtually all observers also say that the Pattaya agreements could not have come about without surprisingly adept mediation by Prince Sihanouk, who of all the "unpredictable personalities" involved in the Cambodian imbroglio may be the least consistent.
Leader of Cambodia from 1941 to 1970, the flamboyant, ever-changeable prince is the heir to a dynasty that is generally dated back more than 1,000 years.
He speaks ten languages, has written five books, has a taste for champagne and caviar, reportedly cannot sleep without sedatives. He is given to long, impassioned harangues in his unusually high-pitched voice.
The prince last lived in his homeland from 1976 to 1979 as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge. When the Khmer Rouge were deposed by the Vietnamese invasion, he was taken in by China, where he began a curious life in exile.
In Beijing, Prince Sihanouk and Princess Monique, a former Miss Cambodia, have lived in a generously appointed villa behind high walls in the city's old Legation District.
Otherwise, the prince and his princess take lengthy sojourns at a mountain palace built especially for them outside of Pyongyang, North Korea, by the prince's longtime friend, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung -- an apparent gesture of gratitude for the fact that Sihanouk-led Cambodia was one the first nations to recognize North Korea.
China and North Korea have supported the royal couple's taste for the good life and globe-trotting with hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, the prince said in a rare interview published last year. North Korea also has indulged the prince in another of his passions by financing movies he has produced.
The Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge murdered five of Prince Sihanouk's children and 14 of his grandchildren. But under Beijing's wing, he has spent the last decade fronting for the Cambodian resistance, a stance that included defending to the world the Khmer Rouge, the strongest of the three guerrilla groups militarily.
Because of the progress toward peace at Pattaya, the prince now is planning to return this November to Phnom Penh, where the French already are refurbishing a residence for him.