The head of the United Nations peace-keeping forces in Cambodia, Lt-Gen John Sanderson, told Thailand's foreign minister that on his weekend visit to the Thai-Cambodian border and Khmer Rouge-controlled areas in western Cambodia around the town of Pailin, he found five Thai gem-mining companies and around 20,000 Thai ruby miners. Cambodian timber is also rolling over more than 18 designated border passes, many from Khmer Rouge zones. The ambitious UN peace programme for Cambodia has been floundering since June, when the Khmer Rouge stopped co-operating, but business deals for them are going well.
Thailand is anxious to shrug off its image as the harbourer of the Khmer Rouge, but its Foreign Minister, Arsa Sarasin, made it clear that there were other interests at stake. 'We cannot stop (the mining companies),' he said. 'We cannot just ask them to withdraw, they have already invested. Who is going to compensate if they withdraw? The Thai government cannot do that.'
But Thailand, with its business links, and China, as the former arms supplier and political backer of the Khmer Rouge, are seen as the only nations with influence on the rebel faction. It was no coincidence that on Monday Mr Arsa also met the Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister, Xu Dunin. And later that afternoon Thai and Chinese officials met Khieu Samphan, the nominal leader of the Khmer Rouge.
The crisis in the peace process started in June. Yasushi Akashi, head of the UN operation in Cambodia, was refused access to the Khmer Rouge areas around Pailin, even though the peace settlement gave him authority to travel anywhere. Then the Khmer Rouge announced it would boycott Phase Two of the agreement, due to start in mid-June, involving the assembly and disarmament of 70 per cent of the country's 200,000 fighters.
Since then, the peace process has been stalled. Violations of the ceasefire have worsened, particularly north of Phnom Penh, where there has been fierce fighting between the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian government troops. The Khmer Rouge now says it will only demobilise its soldiers in tranches, step by step with the dismantling of the Phnom Penh government. It also will not budge without UN verification that there are no Vietnamese soldiers left in Cambodia.
Mr Akashi has given short shrift to these demands, while leaving the door open for discussions. He has told the Khmer Rouge that the peace accord provides for the country's administration to remain in place up to the planned elections next May. The UN has also said it has found no evidence of Vietnamese soldiers. For now, everything is on hold. Only 18,000 troops from the other factions have been placed in cantonments and most are about to be allowed out temporarily to help with rice-planting.
The debate now is whether the Khmer Rouge is simply buying time or is out to scuttle the peace process. Most observers opt for the first view. The faction has some sympathisers for its argument that the UN and the flood of funds into Cambodia are unfairly bolstering the Phnom Penh regime, which has been criticised for corruption and inefficiency. The Khmer Rouge's medium-term strategy may be to use the time gained to secure more territory and ensure it wins a respectable number of seats next year.
There are differing opinions on how to start the process moving again. The UN peace-keepers' second-in-command, the French general Michel Loridon, was replaced recently, reportedly after disagreements on strategy. He was said to favour tougher action against the Khmer Rouge and a more active imposition of the peace accord. The Phnom Penh Foreign Minister, Hor Namhong, has said the UN should consider upgrading Cambodia to a peace-enforcing mission.
The UN, already stretched in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Somalia, is unlikely to consider such a step. Instead, the Security Council agreed last month to cut off aid for the Khmer Rouge if it did not co-operate. But business is already making the Khmer Rouge richer. The next step - UN sanctions - would demand extraordinary co-operation from Thailand.
The elections are still scheduled for May next year, but this is looking increasingly ambitious. By the end of last month, a mere 25,000 Cambodian refugees had been repatriated from the 380,000 in the Thai border camps. In theory, everyone must be back in time to vote.
Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the former monarch and now head of the country's Supreme National Council, which groups all the factions, told the Far Eastern Economic Review: 'In my view we need to tell them (the Khmer Rouge) we are fed up.' There should be no negotiations, Phase Two should be suspended, and rehabilitation and reconstruction should be started on the rest of the country. 'The Khmer Rouge have never abandoned their ideology,' he said, which puts forward the question already on a lot of people's minds: what will happen after the elections, when the UN pulls out?Reuse content