Vietnam keeps tight rein on Kampuchea as key to its own security in Indochina

Security-minded Vietnam has slowly created a Warsaw Pact-type of relationship with neighboring Kampuchea (Cambodia), leaving little hope of more than border fighting and diplomatic shadow-boxing for the foreseeable future.

The Vietnamese feel that a Kampuchea closely allied to them is the only real guarantee of their security, and thus will almost certainly stick to their present hard line by keeping tight control over the government of Phnom Penh and maintaining troops in the country.

The anti-Vietnamese Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, on the other hand, appears as determined as ever to keep up its five-year guerrilla struggle. And the backers of both sides of the simmering conflict show no inclination to stop supplying aid.

Kampuchea has long been Vietnam's Poland - a restless, smaller neighbor, strategically located but with ambivalent feelings toward its larger ally. The Pol Pot years - of alliance with China and of savage attacks on Vietnam's western border - convinced Hanoi that it had to neutralize the Kampuchean threat once and for all. It has done so by creating a Warsaw Pact kind of tie.

This relationship is marked by very close cooperation in defense and foreign affairs, and an absolute identity of ideological views.

The key to any Kampuchean solution as far as Vietnam is concerned is the continued unchallenged rule in Phnom Penh of the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party - and of course the party's continued allegiance to Hanoi. This point is nonnegotiable for the Vietnamese, and explains why Hanoi is so unwilling to countenance any sharing of power in Phnom Penh.

Given this viewpoint, the Vietnamese must have been quite satisfied with the tone of the speeches made earlier this month to mark the fifth anniversary of its ally, the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK).

Heng Samrin, the PRK President and party chief, acknowledged quite fulsomely Vietnam's role as senior partner in Indochina: He also came very close to quoting verbatim the so-called Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereignty.

Speaking soon after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, then Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev asserted that any ideological threat to one member of the socialist bloc by either internal or external forces was a threat to the bloc itself, and thus was a common problem of all socialist countries.

At the fifth anniversary celebrations, Heng Samrin declared that close solidarity between these two nations of Indochina guaranteed the security of each of them: Any harm to that solidarity is a threat to the independence of all.

While this obviously pleases the Vietnamese on the political front, they are probably quite worried about Kampuchea's economy.

The threat of another major rice shortage this year - tentatively estimated at between 260,000 and 294,000 tons - is further indication of Kampuchea's economic fragility.

The country still depends largely on foreign aid, mostly from the Soviet Union and Vietnam these days, as UN aid has almost dried up. It still cannot raise its own revenues through taxation - most forms of taxes and utility charges are still nonexistent - and its exports last year earned just $1.2 million.

This fragility is due partly to the weakness of the administrative infrastructure. Many of Kampuchea's trained professionals, administrators, and specialists died during the Pol Pot years, and many of the survivors emigrated.

Political leaders are even scarcer than bureaucrats. Kampuchea, in fact, suffers from a serious shortage of communists.

The core of the top leadership is the 66 Khmer communists who had fled to Vietnam to escape Pol Pot's purges. Most of the 66 were low-level administrators; many had little formal education. Some, like the current premier and third-ranking Politburo member, Chan Sy, had spent most of the last 30 years in exile.

The shortage of trained and politically reliable cadres is particularly serious in the PRK Army, which has so far failed either to grow or to perform as well as Hanoi has probably wished.

The Army's weakness has a major bearing on the political situation. Vietnamese officers claim to have evolved a rule of thumb for troop withdrawals: the pullback of one Vietnamese division for every one Khmer Rouge division. This rule, however, presupposes that the Phnom Penh government has the military forces to fill the gap.

For the time being it does not, and the Vietnamese are unlikely to pursue operations against the guerrillas with any great ferocity. They will probably be content to keep the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) cooped up on the Thai border, and sweep through a few anti-Vietnamese bases every year. This strategy will of course change if the coalition scores any major breakthrough: Then the Vietnamese would probably hit back as hard as they could.

The coalition forces - which in fact are three forces, the Khmer Rouge and two anticommunist factions, one led by Son Sann and one by Prince Sihanouk - show no signs of either breakthrough or breakup.

Last year, Phnom Penh was provoked into arresting a sizable number of suspected CGDK sympathizers among the local administration in western Kampuchea. Most of those arrested were later reported released. On the whole, however, the CGDK has failed to shake the regime's hold on the vast majority of the people, the rice, and the roads.

All three factions of the Vietnamese resistance conduct their fund raising, recruiting, and military operations separately.

Son Sann's Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF), which claims about 12,000 armed men, can penetrate about 50 kilometers (30 miles) inside Kampuchea from its Thai border bases - about as far as the nearest main highway. Prince Sihanouk's men are more limited in their range and numbers.

The Khmer Rouge, the most effective military force in the coalition, is reported to have raised fresh recruits recently, though border-watchers here are unable to say how many. What is clear, however, is that they have not yet been able to translate this into concrete gains on the battlefield.

During their first war - against the United States and the Lon Nol regime - the Khmer Rouge developed much faster. After three years of fighting it had a stranglehold on Phnom Penh; after five years they captured it.

For a revolutionary organization that claimed to champion the cause of Kampuchea's poor peasantry - over 50 percent of the population - the Khmer Rouge collapsed fast in 1979 and has revived slowly.

The coalition's base areas still seem dependent on the string of refugee camps along the Thai-Khmer border. Housing 228,000 refugees, civilians, and fighters, the camps are administered by the three CGDK members and fed by the United Nations.

The Chinese give their military aid predominantly to the Khmer Rouge, and the six-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gives it exclusively to the noncommunists. The US is probably supplying the KPNLF, while ASEAN's newest and richest member, Brunei, will probably start contributing soon.

But unless the so-called coalition government can move its base areas inside the country - or until the Vietnamese can destroy those bases - the Kampuchean problem is condemned to stalemate.

In theory, of course, the Soviets could break the deadlock by pressuring Vietnam to moderate its stance. This is highly unlikely: The Sino-Soviet talks seem to have shifted from the knotty problems of Kampuchea and Afghanistan to more approachable questions of trade and student exchange.

And why should the Soviets break the stalemate?

They have paid for their alliance with Hanoi but have benefited immeasurably from it. Their naval activities in the Indian Ocean have intensified, thanks to access to Vietnamese bases, especially at Cam Ranh Bay. More important, however, the Soviets have become a political force in Southeast Asia, where they previously counted for little. Nations of the region now admit, usually unhappily, that the Soviet factor has to be taken into consideration in any assessment of regional security.

The Soviets are, in fact, the main beneficiaries of the Kampuchean conflict.

Next: An inside look at the Khmer Rougi.

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