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Khmer Rouge try desperately to win back popular support

By Daniel BursteinSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 1984

Phum Thmei, Kampuchea

Eight saffron-robed Buddhist monks sit praying on the floor of a makeshift pagoda, intoning the chants of antiquity. Surrounded by the lush greens of jungle vegetation, the monks are a compelling sight. But more striking than the color combination is that this pagoda exists at all in the Khmer Rouge-controlled areas of Kampuchea (Cambodia).

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From 1975-78, when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge held power in Kampuchea, Buddhism was ruthlessly suppressed. The saffron robes that flowed ubiquitously in this devoutly Buddhist country before 1975 disappeared completely in the maelstrom of the revolution that followed.

Monks fled, were killed, or were forced to work as ordinary laborers. Buddhism was seen as a vestige of feudalism that Kampuchea's revolutionaries wanted to obliterate and as a social force that conflicted with the rigid new order the Khmer Rouge sought to impose.

Today, however, in an effort to win back the support of millions of Kampucheans whose experiences have taught them to hate the Khmer Rouge, Buddhism has been given a reverential spot to flourish in Phum Thmei. This is a Khmer Rouge-controlled village of several thousand inhabitants close to the Thai border in a corner of northwest Kampuchea.

Says Nget Tuon, an aging monk who fled to safe haven in the Phnom Chat refugee camp in the wake of Vietnam's 1979 invasion of Kampuchea: ''When the Vietnamese started attacking Phnom Chat in May of 1983, it became very dangerous for us there. So we asked the government of Democratic Kampuchea (the coalition government that includes the Khmer Rouge) if we could come here, and they said yes. Since we arrived, we have received everything we wanted. We are free to practice our religion and to teach.''

The Phum Thmei pagoda now houses 14 monks and 16 students. Its existence is one indication of the Khmer Rouge's ''new political policy,'' which claims to put Kampuchean national unity against the invading Vietnamese above all previous ideological considerations.

Ever since their precipitous fall from power five years ago this month, the Khmer Rouge have been trying desperately to win back support from the very people they once tried to annihilate - former city dwellers, intellectuals, businessmen, religious figures, and political and military men from previous Kampuchean governments.

To that end, the Khmer Rouge have declared the dissolution of their Communist Party and promised not to restore socialism even if they are victorious in their war with the Vietnamese. They have removed Pol Pot from political leadership, although he remains commander in chief of the armed forces. (For four years Pol Pot has not been seen in public; his place has been taken by the less tainted Khieu Samphan, who has promulgated a political program that, at least in word, commits the Khmer Rouge to a form of liberal democracy.)

Since 1982, the Khmer Rouge have been allied in a resistance coalition with the key noncommunist nationalists of Kampuchea: Prince Samdech Norodom Sihanouk and former Prime Minister Son Sann. The coalition has survived early discord and the severity of its ideological differences.

Those developments may be meaningless abstractions for large numbers of Kampucheans who bitterly recall the massacres and extremist policies of Pol Pot's years in power. Yet a steady trickle of refugees and people who have been living in Vietnamese-controlled areas has been arriving in the Khmer Rouge zones for two years now, willing to test the waters and to see if indeed life under the Khmer Rouge has changed.