Singapore — A lone shot rings out somplace in the camp of refugees. "It sounds like one more accidental discharge," says a camp doctor. "We will have a wounded man in here shortly."
That recent incident in a crowded Cambodian refugee camp near the Thai border illustrates a big problem in a small way.
The raggle-taggle "army" of "third force" noncommunist anti-Vietnamese Cambodians lacks discipline and military clout. Its youthful khaki-clad soldiers casually dangle lethal rocket launchers and automatic rifles. So far they are no competition for the disciplined Khmer Rouge.
Well aware of this, China continues to back the communist Khmer Rouge that ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. It funnels arms and supplies to the green-uniformed guerrillas fighting 200,000 Vietnamese soldiers occupying Cambodia.
To improve its public relations problem (1 to 3 million Cambodians died as a result of the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge) China has encouraged the Khmer Rouge to downplay the Pol Pot-led Communist Party, and tolerate traditional songs and dances.
But now the noncommunist countries of Southeast Asia appear to have decided that the Chinese strategy is no longer enough. On a recent visit to China Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda urged the Chinese to seek an alternative leadership for anti-Vietnamese Cambodian resistance forces. Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has been making a similar case during his trip to China.
China appears to insist that the Khmer Rouge cannot be abandoned, even though a new leadership for a patriotic united front with other groups could be formed. China has agreed in principle on a new leadership for the Khmer Rouge before next year's United Nations General Assembly meeting, Prime Minister Prem is quoted as saying.
China seems more firmly committed to the Khmer Rouge than are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia , and the Philippines).
But a two-pronged strategy of cooperation appears to be emerging.
1. The Khmer Rouge would continue to bear the brunt of actual battle, while a leadership change would attempt to sweeten its image.
2. On the other hand a united front of cooperation would be encouraged between the Khmer Rouge and third force groups.
Third-force respectability would thus be grafted onto Khmer Rouge military muscle. One hope would be this would give the third force an opportunity to grow.
Yet if a third force cooperated too closely with the Khmer Rouge, it could become unpopular with many Cambodians who have suffered under Pol Pot's rule.
Everyone opposed to Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia seems to agree that a strong third force would be preferable to relying totally on the unpopular Khmer Rouge.
From a Chinese viewpoint a disciplined third force could rally popular support and help its long-term aim of militarily weakening Vietnam away from defiance.
From the viewpoint of members of ASEAN a strong third force with wide popular backing could be the basis of a quicker compromise negotiated settlement of the Cambodian situation. This is because a third force need not be so closely identified with Vietnam's opponent china. But one question is how to create an effective third force without undermining the only present serious obstacle to Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge.