Singapore — There are growing signs that noncommunist Southeast Asia may change its approach in the campaign to force Vietnam out of Cambodia. So far members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have continued to recognize the atrocity-tarnished China- backed Khmer Rouge, even though they have not favored restoring it to power. They have done so in the hope that its guerrilla actions might tax the Vietnamese to the point where they would agree to a negotiated political solution in Cambodia.
But now both Singapore and Thailand appear to be changing course in an effort to bolster "third force" alternatives to the Khmer Rouge, who were ousted by Vietnam in 1979 and replaced by the Hanoi-backed Heng Samrin government. Whether the other ASEAN members, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, will follow suit remains to be seen.
Both Singapore and Thailand are acutely aware that international support for recognition of the Khmer Rouge is dwindling. Next year's UN General Assembly may no longer seat the Khmer Rouge. But for the time being, their UN representation will remain intact. The General Assembly has overwhelmingly rejected a Soviet and Vietnamese attempt to oust them.
"We have one year and we must use it well," one Thai diplomat said in a telephone interview from Bangkok.
The most dramatic sign that Thailand is shifting course was voiced by Dr. Sarasin Viraphol, a China expert and first secretary in the Thai Foreign Ministry.
He told a Singapore newspaper, the Straits Times, that the question of a new leadership for Cambodian resistance forces will be a major topic when Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda visits Peking, Oct. 24 to Oct. 28.
An alternative to Khmer Rouge leadership will be necessary if long-term international support to get Vietnam out of Cambodia is to be maintained, he said.
"It is important for us to convince the Chinese of our thinking," he explained. "There are Khmer leaders and exgovernment officials the world over who might be willing to work for a patriotic united front."
Another Thai source confirmed that this issue will be one of many brought up with China on an "exploratory general basis." "But," he cautioned, "there is relatively little an outsider can do. It is largely up to the Cambodians themselves."
Analysts here see signs that Singapore agrees with the new Thai approach. Indeed, Singapore and Thailand have long been known for close cooperation within ASEAN on how to deal with Indo-China.
One indication of a convergence of thinking on the latest Thai move, according to an analyst, is a Sept. 22 interview between Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Derek Davies, editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.
"ASEAN does not want . . . the Khmer Rouge to be in power ever again: To achieve this we must . . . alter the nature of the leadership of the government of Democratic Kampuchea [Cambodia]," declared Mr. Lee.
"Both People's Republic of China and Khmer Rouge leaders must recognize that the alternative to this is eventual legitimitizing of the Vietnamese puppet regime in Kampuchea. Surely Sihanouk, Lon Nol, Son sann, and Im Tan are more representative of the Kampuchea people and can better express their aspirations."
Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila, who accompanies General Prem on the trip to China, will visit Malaysia and Indonesia Oct. 20 to 22 to explain the new position. A stopover in Singapore is also scheduled. Some analysts expect the visit to cement the Thai-Singapore approach even more.
Indeed, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew may push the same argument with China in a scheduled November visit to Peking, one analyst suggests.
Still, there are grave doubts that "third force" leaders or groups can ever become an effective power in Cambodia. It is the Chinese position that practicality requires recognizing that the Khmer Rouge are the only ones who have the guns, organization, and discipline to fight Vietnam.
Former Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk has no army and has withdrawn from politics. And despite the Vietnamese threat, splintered non-Khmer Rouge groups have often been unable to cooperate.
Son Sann, former economics minister under Prince Sihanouk, is the absentee leader of a noncommunist group calling itself the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF). Some believe the KPNLF eventually could rival the Khmer Rouge. Its on-the-ground leader, Gen. Dien Del, talks of proclaiming a provisional government.
But there is still no hard evidence that any of these groups can push aside the Khmer Rouge or the Vietnam-dominated Heng Samrin regime. Or that they have learned to cooperate.
"These are really weak reeds," says one analyst. "The third-force concept has never really amounted to anything. What we have here is Asian factionalism run rampant."