ARANYAPRATHET, THAILAND — A heavy machine gun, manned by grim-faced Thai troops in flak jackets, points toward the border with Cambodia. "The Khmer Rouge are just over there," explains an officer, waving his binoculars in the direction of a jagged range of mountains that rises steeply out of the paddy fields a few hundred yards away.
The Thai troops are bracing themselves for a possible battle as reports stream out of neighboring Cambodia that the once-tight leadership of the Khmer Rouge guerrillas has split into factions. Thai military leaders worry that fighting could spread across the border into Thailand.
Meanwhile, leaders and analysts in Cambodia are interpreting the internal Khmer Rouge conflict as a possible harbinger of peace. "It might be the beginning of the end," says Roland Eng, Cambodia's ambassador to Thailand, referring to Cambodia's long civil war. "Since the elections in 1993, the Cambodian government has been putting military and psychological pressure on the Khmer Rouge. So far, 25,000 Khmer Rouge fighters and their families have come over to the government side."
Senior Khmer Rouge commanders Sok Pheap and Mit Chien broke away from communist hard-liners last week, claiming that their leadership was "too severe." The internal rebellion, described as a "revolution" by some, took observers by surprise. "Nothing like this has ever happened since the Khmer Rouge was formed. One of their strengths has been the secrecy and continuity surrounding the top leadership," Mr. Eng says.
The rifts have apparently split the Khmer Rouge's tightly knit leadership at the highest level. Shortly before Cambodia's Second Prime Minister Hun Sen (himself a Khmer Rouge defector) announced the defections of Sok Pheap and Mit Chien last Thursday, Khmer Rouge radio launched a vitriolic attack on one of the Khmer Rouge's top leaders, Ieng Sary, denouncing him as a traitor. Second only to Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge's shadowy "Brother No. 1," Ieng Sary has apparently sided with the rebels, acting as "a kind of senior adviser," according to sources on the Thai border.
"It's basically like a coup d'tat within the Khmer Rouge," says Khun Prasit Saengrungreung, a Thai journalist with close contacts inside the Khmer Rouge. But Mr. Prasit warns against too much optimism. "Although the government is hoping the defectors will cooperate with them peacefully, it does not mean that they are in control of the rebel Khmer Rouge zones."
Formed by a group of French-educated Cambodian Maoists who took to the jungles in the early 1960s, the Khmer Rouge has become synonymous with the bloodshed that has earned Cambodia a reputation as the "killing fields" of Southeast Asia.
Upon seizing power on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge raised the curtain on the bloodiest chapter of this tiny nation's history. In just three years in power, the Khmer Rouge killed more than 1 million people as it tried to drag the nation back to Year Zero, its version of a classless peasant society.
After 1979, when it was driven out of Phnom Penh by a Vietnamese invasion, the Khmer Rouge continued its operations from jungle bases strung along the Thai-Cambodian border. Ignoring peace accords signed in October 1991 and the results of United Nations-sponsored elections in May 1993, it has continued to wage a and debilitating war against the elected government in Phnom Penh.
Unable to defeat the Khmer Rouge in battle, the government is clearly placing renewed emphasis on negotiations in an attempt to achieve an accord with the guerrillas. In Phnom Penh last week, Hun Sen said he and Co-Defense Minister Tea Banh had been holding talks with rebel Khmers, including Ieng Sary, for more than two months. Sok Pheap and Mit Chien will be promoted to the rank of general in the government Army, he said.
Sapped of its ideological direction and popular legitimacy, the Khmer Rouge is starting to look like little more than a band of warlords squabbling for control of Cambodia's forests and gem mines.
But it is still unlikely that the government will regain direct control over Khmer Rouge areas, observers say. "It's not a victory for Hun Sen. What this split means is that the two sides may be able to come to some sort of peaceful power-sharing agreement," affirms journalist Prasit.
That's still probably good news for the government in Phnom Penh, which is keen to patch together this shattered nation of 10 million. The lingering civil war and endemic insecurity throughout much of the countryside have put a brake on Cambodia's hopes for economic growth. The country's annual gross national product is still only $215 per capita.