Washington — A leader of Cambodia's resistance says he is optimistic his country can be ``liberated'' from Vietnamese invaders. But in a recent luncheon interview, Son Sann, head of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front, said success of the resistance is partly linked to United States aid.
Son Sann, former prime minister of Cambodia, and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, commander of the Sihanoukist National Army, visited Washington last week to lobby administration officials and members of Congress for aid. They said the cause of their two noncommunist forces was a ``perfect analogy'' to the Afghanistan resistance of Soviet occupation.
Son Sann says the US trip has convinced him that Americans are on his side. ``People are more aware of our cause than ever before.'' He attributes the heightened awareness to the publicity given to the Vietnamese border offensive that began last November. He also credits a recent film, ``The Killing Fields,'' which tells the story of a New York Times reporter and his Cambodian interpreter during the Vietnam war and rise of the Khmer Rouge.
Despite growing pressure from American allies in Southeast Asia, the United States has provided no direct military assistance to the resistance. But two weeks ago the House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to give $5 million to Thailand, to be channeled directly to the two noncommunist groups. The administration so far has opposed military aid, but in a change of posture last week, the State Department said it ``would not forego flexibility on the point.''
The two armies are part of a loose front formed to drive out the Vietnamese Army, which occupied Cambodia in 1979. The third member is the communist Khmer Rouge, which 10 years ago this week began a repressive four-year rule of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge is reputed to be responsible for the deaths of 1 million to 2 million Cambodians.
The goal of the resistance is not a military defeat of the Vietnamese, said Mr. Ranariddh, who was also at the luncheon. ``We've never claimed we could win against 180,000 troops. . . . Our object is to make the Cambodian waters hotter and hotter for the Vietnamese fish.''
In public statements, the Reagan administration has said US aid is not necessary to sustain the resistance. But Son Sann disagrees. Right now, he says, with recruits coming faster than weapons, he has no way of putting more troops into the field. ``We can't fight the Vietnamese with our bare hands,'' Son Sann says.
He also says aid is needed to sustain a new military strategy. ``From now on, we'll be changing entirely to guerrilla tactics,'' says Son Sann. ``You can't liberate Cambodia if you stay on the border in camps. We'll be more mobile, we'll [penetrate Cambodia] deeper.''
Son Sann and Ranariddh say such tactics -- backed by new arms -- will be the key to sustaining military pressure on Vietnam. But they also say that's only half the task. They have to establish the noncommunist resistance as a viable political option in Cambodia, the two leaders say. Otherwise, they say, there will be no incentive to get Vietnam to negotiate.
Right now, says Ranariddh, the Cambodian people live with a ``balance of terror'' between the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge.''
``If it's the only choice,'' he says, ``my people will choose the Khmer Rouge -- even after the holocaust. If the enemy withdraws and we are not strong, then the Khmer Rouge can reestablish a reign of terror. But if the Cambodian people see us living among them, they will have a choice between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese. If we are strong, we can give our people a choice. That's what we're seeking.''
Son Sann and Ranariddh say they think the administration's reluctance to provide more aid has been based on a tactical judgment, not on principle.
``On the plane of principle there should be no distinction between the two [Afghan and Cambodian] causes,'' Son Sann says. But he says he's aware that the administration wants to be certain that new aid will be supported by American public opinion and that it will not become a divisive issue in Congress.
Son Sann says he's aware of how much is still left of the ``Vietnam syndrome.'' ``You are a great power and you have to be cured quickly of this. I would like to contribute to your cure.''