With the Cambodia resistance. Cambodia's Khmer Rouge are known for their brutality, secretiveness, and suspicion of outsiders. Journalist Robert Karniol's rare contact with the communist guerrilla movement held some surprises.
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Our KPNLF unit contacted its Khmer Rouge allies in the region, seeking Nason's admission to the Khmer Rouge field hospital. The request was denied. So was our appeal to return to the border along a quicker and safer route controlled by the Khmer Rouge, whose commander said he needed authorization from his superiors, who rarely allow contact with Westerners.Skip to next paragraph
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The response suggested we would be attacked by the Khmer Rouge if we stepped on their turf without permission. Some hard-line Khmer Rouge field commanders do not recognize the resistance coalition and view all outsiders as enemies; others have appeared to be cooperative.
Increasing Vietnamese activity prompted the KPNLF to try again, with the aim of bypassing enemy concentrations by returning to Thailand west through Khmer Rouge territory. To that end, the KPNLF leadership in Thailand started negotiations with the Khmer Rouge leadership there.
It took two or three days of talks before an agreement was reached. Inexplicably (since there were radio links), another two or three days passed before word filtered down to the Khmer Rouge field commander.
The Khmer Rouge have recently made efforts to erase memories of their odious past and to project a moderate image within Cambodia and abroad. For instance, they frown on the name Khmer Rouge and insist on ``National Army of Democratic Kampuchea.'' To Western skepticism, the Khmer Rouge claim to have disavowed communism and to have accepted Pol Pot's retirement. He is now simply an ``adviser,'' they claim.
Perhaps more substantive are their renewed efforts to win the support of Khmer villagers through propaganda and programs, such as one aimed at marrying off Khmer Rouge soldiers to local women. They have also tried to improve cooperation in the field with their noncommunist coalition partners, though hard-liners have resisted this.
Our predicament no doubt gave the Khmer Rouge an ideal propaganda vehicle for showing a more moderate face. The Khmer Rouge we met seemed to go out of their way to be friendly and helpful. They seemed to be dedicated, professional soldiers, and ardent nationalists. We spent eight days with the Khmer Rouge. Few Westerners have had a similar opportunity to observe their military technique and demeanor. They seemed well-equipped and disciplined. Some sported Buddhist charms, possibly a sign that the leadership is softening its stand against religious worship. They were confident, neat, and often cheerful.
They had a doctor waiting to treat Nason on our arrival at the mobile headquarters of their 450th Division. A 30-man escort was assigned to guide our party to the Thai border. When a Vietnamese patrol thwarted our first attempt at crossing, and we subsequently ran short of food, a 91-man transport unit was sent to resupply us. A couple of days later our combined force of roughly 160 KPNLF troops and 120 Khmer Rouge reached safety.
Given the suspicion with which the Khmer Rouge are known to regard all non-Khmer Rouge, it was surprising that KPNLF and Khmer Rouge soldiers appeared comfortable with each other and that villagers encountered along our route seemed at ease in the presence of both.