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Claims that Cambodian peace process will play into the hands of the Khmer Rouge

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator Gareth Evans, has dismissed claims by the Opposition that the long and drawn out Cambodian peace process will play into the hands of the Khmer Rouge. Opposition Foreign Affairs spokesman, Senator Robert Hill, says the military and political balance in Cambodia has changed significantly since Australia's peace initiative was announced. Senator Hill says the Khmer Rouge is rearming and now has Chinese tanks, but the Foreign Minister says there hasn't been any significant development that would jeopardise the settlement. Senator Evans was speaking to Ann McCaig in our Canberra studio.

ANN McCAIG: Senator Evans, has there been any significant change in the political and military balance in Cambodia that could jeopardise the peace process?

GARETH EVANS: There have been marginal changes over the course of the year but I don't think significant ones. The dynamics of that process remain exactly as they were and as they have appealed to the whole international community, namely that the best way of guaranteeing peace is to have a properly UN supervised peace process, UN supervised elections and UN peacekeeping force there on the ground, and a UN conducted and supervised administration during the transitional period, accompanied by a comprehensive settlement in which all the external players that have been supplying the internal Cambodian parties with arms, will cease permanently and irrevocably, such supply in the future, thus very definitely changing the balance and guaranteeing a much more stable future on the ground.

ANN McCAIG: Is there a danger though, as Senator Hill suggests, that continuing delays in the process in fact exacerbate the situation there?

GARETH EVANS: Well, they're not helping and we're all going flat out to try and bring the final process to a head, hopefully before the end of this year, maybe a little later than that, but we hope not. The crucial thing is that Senator Hill fails to seem to want to acknowledge is that there's a very big difference between the role of the Khmer Rouge when, as now, it is supplied by China, and the role of the Khmer Rouge in a post-settlement environment, when it will be on its own. And the virtue of the comprehensive settlement strategy, which is the only game in town at the moment, is that it's the only way of guaranteeing that those external suppliers will get out of the picture and the Khmer Rouge will be on its own. The Khmer Rouge on its own can make a nuisance of itself, no doubt, for the next two or three years, using the accumulated stocks that it has but in everyone's judgment, it can't be any more than a marginal player, a marginal nuisance. It can't work havoc and destruction and that's why we're hanging in so hard behind the comprehensive settlement and that's why it simply doesn't help to take the kind of sceptical view about that process that the Opposition has.

ANN McCAIG: Would the Khmer Rouge though be more than an irritant if it has such weapons as Chinese tanks?

GARETH EVANS: Well, it's still got to have the support capacity to operate those machines if indeed it does have them on the scale that's been suggested in some reports. It can certainly make a nuisance of itself, there's absolutely no doubt about that but it hasn't even, with all the support that it's had from China in all these years, it has not been able to take and win territory in any significant way, and clearly it will be much less able to play that military role in the future, without that external support.

ANN McCAIG: What's the time frame for the settlement process?

GARETH EVANS: Well, we very much hope that we can get a negotiating text completed within the next few weeks, that the Paris conference can reconvene some time in December and that the UN process can start some time early in the new year.

RICHARD PALFREYMAN: Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans.