Sihanouk threatens peace plan

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CAMBODIA'S capricious former ruler, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, has once again thrown the United Nations peace plan for his country into confusion. Having demanded a significant change to the plan - the inclusion of a presidential election - he suddenly backed away from the idea yesterday, just as the international community seemed about to endorse it.

For the head of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac), Yasushi Akashi, the Prince's endless manoeuvring adds to the danger that the most costly and ambitious peace mission in the organisation's history will end in humiliation.

Mr Akashi, the entire top tier of Untac and members of the Supreme National Council (SNC), which groups the four main Cambodian factions, are having to meet today in Peking because Prince Sihanouk refuses to come to Phnom Penh. He withdrew to China two months ago, partly for medical treatment but also to emphasise that his co-operation was essential to the peace process.

The succession of visitors going back and forth to see him, including Mr Akashi, ministers and diplomats from the main backers of the peace agreement and the Prime Minister of the Phnom Penh government, Hun Sen, has more than made his point.

The main outcome of the negotiations was an understanding that a presidential election would be held. Prince Sihanouk would be almost certain to win such an election, and might well be the only candidate. Leading powers which had opposed the idea, fearing that the Prince might overshadow the national assembly due to be elected in three or four months' time, were persuaded that he might help to ensure stability.

Today's SNC meeting was expected to recommend the proposal for approval by the Security Council. Having established his indispensability, however, Prince Sihanouk has issued a series of contradictory statements. Last week he appeared to go along with Mr Hun Sen, who wants the Prince in power as early as possible, probably in the hope of doing a deal with him which might downgrade the national assembly. Then the former ruler appeared to echo the views of his son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, leader of the royalist Funcinpec party, who wants two polls held together so as to maximise the party's representation in the assembly.

Yesterday, apparently in response to rumblings from the Khmer Rouge, Prince Sihanouk said it might not be necessary to hold a presidential election until the assembly was in place and could organise one.

By conceding his demand for a presidential poll, the UN has enhanced the Prince's authority and diminished its own. The peace process has already been undermined by Khmer Rouge intransigence. The 16,000-member UN peace-keeping force is being kept at full strength and redeployed to protect election workers.

The Phnom Penh authorities, who control most of Cambodia, resent the loss of power entailed in the UN presence, and are being blamed for a spate of intimidatory attacks on opposition parties organising for the elections.

Untac can claim considerable success in stabilising Cambodia. It is on target to bring back all refugees from outside the country in time for the election, and will have registered more than 4.5 million voters by the deadline of Sunday. Tomorrow sees another deadline: it is the final day for parties to register for the election. Just over 20 are expected to do so.

This marks the point of no return - to allow the Khmer Rouge back in to the process from now on would be fatal to the UN's credibility. Mr Akashi will have to abandon any further attempts to placate the movement.

However much irritation he feels with Prince Sihanouk, however, the Untac head knows he will have to endure it. Even if the outcome of the peace process is to restore Cambodia to where it was in the 1950s, with the Prince as an undemocratic head of state and the Khmer Rouge attempting to stir up the countryside against him, Mr Akashi may have little choice but to go along.