Washington — Cambodian resistance to Vietnam's occupation is faltering, according to a major new study by an American scholar. If the scholar, Steve Heder, is correct, many nations eventually may be forced to drop their recognition of the Cambodian regime formerly headed by Premier Pol Pot.
Drawing on some 800 interviews conducted along the Thai-Cambodian border, Mr. Heder concludes that the Cambodian communist resistance is vulnerable to a coordinated, length-of-the-border attack by the Vietnamese. He also asserts that the prospects for an increase in the effectiveness of the resistance seemed , at the time he concluded his research, to be "dim to nonexistent."
Fluent in the Khmer language and a doctoral degree candidate at Cornell University, Heder did much of his work under contract to the US State Department. He conducted the interviews between November 1979 and August 1980.
Excerpts from his lengthy study were first published this week by the Center for International Policy, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. The center favors an easing of Chinese pressures on Vietnam as a first step toward establishing relations between the United States and Vietnam. Members of the center believe that the US has been too deferential toward China in formulating its policies toward Vietnam and the rest of Indo- China. China is the main supporter of the Cambodian communist resistance.
Heder's report on the grim prospects for the Khmer Rouge insurgency coincides with a high level of diplomatic activity aimed at resolving the crisis in Cambodia.
At the four-day Conference of Nonaligned Nations, which opened Feb. 9 in New Delhi, friends of Vietnam are attempting to get the Hanoi-backed Cambodian regime of Heng Samrin seated.
While continuing officially to recognize the Cambodian communist resistance, some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have been encouraging the idea of a "patriotic united front" that would combine elements of the communist and noncommunist resistance. But the Heder report casts some doubt on the ability of the communist resistance to change its nature enough to accommodate to such a solution.
Barring a political settlement, US defense analysts think the Vietnamese may launch a spring military offensive against the Khmer resistance, whose government is known as "Democratic Kampuchea."
"Pol Pot continues to survive," said one American defense analyst. "The Vietnamese have chased the guerrillas around. . . . But it's almost impossible to make guerrillas stand and fight, if they don't want to fight."
In his study, however, Heder reports that during the October 1979 to April 1980 dry season, roughly 20 percent of the ordinary people who were still in the Democratic Kampuchea zones along the Thai border left those areas. A few went to Thailand. Most, however, went into Vietnamese-controlled zones.
"Given the difficulties and dangers involved, such a large number of departures indicated a continuing high level of disillusionment and alienation among what had to be considered Democratic Kampuchea's 'hard core' of popular support," says Heder.
"Another roughly 5 percent of the population in Democratic Kampuchea border zones was liberated or captured by the Vietnamese," he continues. "Meanwhile, starvation, disease, Vietnamese shelling, bombing, and ground attacks, and Democratic Kampuchea executions (roughly in that order) killed about 10 percent of the civilian population. In other words, perhaps one-third of the civilians who were in Democratic Kampuchea-controlled border zones in October 1979 were no longer there in April 1980."
By August 1980, he says, the Vietnamese were able to bottle up the resistance fighters in their strongholds without weakening Vi etnamese domination of the country as a whole.