Hanoi: hands off Thais -- for now

The Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan may have had one beneficial side effect in Southeast Asia. It may have caused Hanoi to think twice about a major military incursion into Thailand.

Western analysts here note that so far Vietnam's dry season offensive against the Khmer Rouge does not appear to have yielded decisive results.

One reason may be that without occupying the Thai side of the rugged Thai-Cambodian frontier, it is impossible for the Vietnamese to seal off the Cardamom Mountains in which the Khmer Rouge have their final redoubt.

The United States and China have similar goals in Indo-China. Both powers would react strongly to a Vietnamese invasion of Thailand. Both powers wish to preserve a Cambodia that is as independent as possible of Vietnam.

Washington and Peking think that their warnings about the seriousness with which they would view a Vietnamese invasion of Thailand have been effective, at least for the present. In fact, there is evidence that Hanoi has been discomfitted by the strength and swiftness of Washington's reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The steady American disengagement from mainland Asia since the Vietnam war seems suddenly to have been reversed and the American public's mood once again unpredictable. In this changed post-Afghan situation, Hanoi may sense the need for a more prudent policy toward Thailand. As regards Cambodia, however, both Washington and Peking recognize that the situation remains precarious.

Until the dry season is over, some time in late May or June, it is impossible to predict how much of a resistance capability the Khmer Rouge and other groups fighting the Vietnamese invaders will retain. Without a proper assessment of that capability, neither Washington nor Peking can frame an effective medium-to long- range policy for Cambodia. Nor, for that matter, can Hanoi.

One somber Chinese assessment is said to be that if at least 3 million Cambodians survive without fleeing or being decimated by war or disease, there will be an adequate population base from which to conduct guerrilla war against the Vietnamese for many years.

There is no accurate population figure for Cambodia, some estimates ranging as high as 6 million, others considerably less. If Washington and Peking have similar goals in Cambodia, their policies differ in one major respect. The United States will have nothing to do with the Khmer Rouge, the regime that took power in Phnom Penh in 1975 and subsequently carried out a brutal policy of domestic repression and a foolhardy external policy of military confrontation with Hanoi.

It hopes, without being too hard-line about it, that Khmer groups opposed to Vietnamese occupation can manage to join forces under a figure with sufficient domestic and international prestige -- that is to say, former Cambodian head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk. The Chinese have had sharp policy differences with the Khmer Rouge, but maintain that theirs is the only effective and credible fighting force opposing the Vietnamese invaders.

While not opposed to Prince Sihanouk, they are skeptical that he can bypass the Khmer Rouge and forge an effective front against the Vietnamese.

Hanoi, too, is not without its dilemma. On the one hand it wants a stable Cambodia firmly within its orbit -- at least a Finland, but more likely an Estonia or a Latvia. Even if its current offensive does not entirely succeed, if it could reduce the level of guerrilla activity to the point where peasants feel reasonably secure, the Heng Samrin puppet regime it has installed in Phnom Penh may begin to acquire the credibility it currently lacks.

But if there is no way, even through sheer weight of military numbers, to achieve this goal, then the Vietnamese may have to settle for a Cambodia that may not be so independent as during the Sihanouk days yet will have a real measure of internal autonomy, and particularly the right to refuse large-scale Vietnamese immigration.

Hanoi has not yet come to the point of accepting this lesser goal, and neither Washington nor Peking have the means to force it to do so.

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