Despite his often defiant public words, Cambodian strongman Hun Sen is showing signs of flexibility on key principles required for a settlement of the Cambodian crisis, the U.S. special envoy to Cambodia told Secretary of State Madeleine Albright here Saturday.
The Cambodian leader’s apparent softening in his stance has triggered the first tentative optimism among U.S. officials that his effective coup earlier this month may not have completely undermined the troubled country’s new democracy, an American official told reporters. But the task ahead is still an uphill struggle, he added.
There is now “broad agreement” by Hun Sen and Cambodia’s other political figures as well as key regional and international players that all exiled political leaders, members of Parliament and government ministers, including ousted Second Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, should be allowed to return, the official said in discussing the 3-week-old crisis.
All interested parties have also stipulated that any settlement will center on respect for the 1991 Paris accords that brought peace to Cambodia and a promise of free and fair parliamentary elections no later than May 1998.
Despite conflicting signals and statements over the past four days, Hun Sen told envoy Stephen J. Solarz that he is willing to allow the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to mediate in the crisis, a sharp reversal from his earlier rebuff to the foreign ministers of Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, the official said.
The official predicted a negotiation process that would begin with a meeting among Hun Sen and the three ASEAN foreign ministers, followed by ASEAN shuttle diplomacy between Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, and exiled political leaders, and then potentially a direct meeting between Hun Sen and his rivals.
In contrast to prospects just a week ago, which the official described as “bleak,” a compromise now seems doable, the official said.
The impending ASEAN mediation effort offers real hope, he said, although he added that there are no guarantees that the process will be successful.
The U.S. official said Hun Sen has three incentives to cooperate with diplomatic efforts: his quest for political legitimacy; his desire to become a member of ASEAN, a move that had been expected this month but became stalled after Ranariddh was ousted and at least 40 opposition figures were killed; and the country’s dependence on foreign aid for 60 percent of its budget.
The official urged donor nations to use aid as a lever to pressure Hun Sen. The United States has suspended aid and is pressing allies not to provide aid or at least make it conditional on behavior. But Japan, which provides half of Cambodia’s foreign aid, has indicated it is unwilling to withhold funds.
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