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The U.N. as a Peace Keeper in Cambodia


London. -- The U.N. operation in Cambodia bears an uncanny resemblance to what many would have the U.N. do in Bosnia, if the Vance-Owen peace plan were implemented. So watch carefully the next 10 days, until Cambodia's U.N.-sponsored election is held May 23.

The sharpest of Cambodia's three punchers, the Khmer Rouge, has already jumped out of the ring and has threatened to sabotage the rest of the match from its jungle hideaway. The United Nations, both matchmaker and referee, persists, saying that nothing, not even the most murderous guerrilla army on the face of the earth, will be allowed to get in the way of the culminating act of four years of diplomacy and peacekeeping.

Diplomacy and peacekeeping takes you only so far, especially when you are as thin on the ground as the U.N. is in Cambodia. Then it is a question of nerves and staying power. The U.N. team seems to have both, but that may not be enough.

Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen are arguing for 70,000-plus peacekeepers in Bosnia. In Cambodia, a country even more violent, the U.N. is making do with 20,000 in the face of Khmer Rouge attacks. Nine peacekeepers have been killed, including one of the 460 unarmed, poorly paid, U.N. volunteers (mainly young graduates, a majority of whom are from the Indian sub-continent) who do the bravest job of all -- living way out in the remotest rural reaches, registering voters and preparing the election.

After some talk of going home, most of the peacekeepers are staying put, trying to mediate among the Khmer Rouge, the government, which is also not slow to use violence and intimidation, and the quirky, mercurial leadership of Cambodia's former hereditary monarch, Prince Sihanouk.

At its conception the Cambodian peacekeeping operation was the biggest and most expensive ever mounted. Today, in the light of the debate about Bosnia, and even compared with Somalia, it is painfully obvious that it was done on the cheap.

Judging from my pile of clippings, the press has devoted a quite inordinate amount of its reporting on Cambodia to suggestions that the U.N. presence is both too large and too free-spending. But do we really expect the U.N. to drive around in rickshaws and ask its troops to live as modestly as the impoverished locals, many of whom are lucky if they can have fish or meat with their rice two times a week? Armies always distort civilian life. At least this one is claiming no lives and, if it succeeds in its mandate, will leave the country at peace, able to get on with the business of rebuilding its destroyed economy.

No, the fact is the U.N. presence is dangerously undermanned. It is no use contemplating a great enterprise in the former Yugoslavia when the Cambodian operation, in a much worse killing field, is in danger of unraveling at its most crucial moment.

A show of determination in the Security Council now, followed by the fast dispatch of American, Russian and even Chinese rapid-reaction units to beef up the U.N. presence over the next 10 days would do wonders. It would boost the courage of the Cambodians who want to defy both the Khmer Rouge and the government and vote freely, and it would send the hit men the message that if they want to sabotage this election they are not going to win power by other means.

Cambodia is like Yugoslavia in one other important way. Outsiders have been allowed to get away too easily with supporting the warring culprits. The economic embargo introduced last year caused Serbia serious trouble, but has too many loopholes. Only last month were the screws finally turned tight, forcing Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to the bargaining table.

Similarly, in Cambodia no one seriously lifts a finger to punish the Thai military for providing the Khmer Rouge with lucrative gem and logging contracts and thus the wherewithal to feed its military machine. The Security Council should immediately threaten high-growth, export-oriented, prosperous Thailand with a savage embargo if it doesn't stop immediately.

For the next 10 days, let us have a little less Yugoslavia and a

little more Cambodia. If the U.N. operation fails in its Asian drama it will lose morale and credibility. That would make a mockery of what America and Europe finally decide to ask the world body to do in Bosnia.

Jonathan Power writes a column about the Third World.

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