Propaganda war clouds actual Khmer strength

A central question in the prospects for peace between Vietnam and its neighbors is the strenth of the China- backed Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. A new propaganda was has joined the launching of grenades and the firing of automatic rifles in efforts to sound the answer.

Vietnam-backed Cambodian President Heng Samrin says the Khmer Rouge have been hounded to oblivion. But Khmer Rouge Prime Minister Khieu Samphan claims his forces have grown to 60,000, backed by another 50,000 activists in village all over cambodia.

Thai and Western military and diplomatic analysts debate among themselves just what the real picture is.

The stakes are these:

1. Unless the Khmer Rouge can demonstrate continuing strength, they will find their recognition and political support in the United Nations eroded.

2. If the Khmer Rouge are growing, stepped-up Veitnamese military action may be necessary in Western Cambodia. This runs the risk of spreading the refugee exodus and fighting into Thailand.

3. Any intensified military action brought about by a Khmer Rouge buildup of strength would likely bring more bloodshed, refugee prolems, and crop destruction in the hunger-stricken country.

4. If the Khmer Rouge are stronger, Vietnam will have difficulty reducing its military strength in Cambodia. It is a presence that alienates the noncommunist nations of Southeast Asia and runs the risk of fanning anti-vietnam feelings among Cambodians. It also imposes an economic burden on Vietnam, and makes it harder for the country to defend its northern border with China.

5. At the same time, however, evidence of growing Khmer Rouge strength could make Vietnam's presence more acceptable to the millions of Cambodians whose chief fear is a return of Khmer Rouge rule. Thousands of people were brutally killed during the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975 to 1978.

There is little doubt among analysts that the Khmer Rouge have made headway in their resistance to Vietnam. one frequently cited piece of evidence: Vietnam's failure to forcefully launch a dry-season offensive in December or January.

one analyst suggests that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan convinced Moscow it could not give Vietnam the logistical support needed to wipe out the Khmer Rouge. Another view is the Soviets simply did not want another possible flash point with the West, should fighting spread to thailand.

Whatever the reason, some Thai intelligence estimates place current Khmer Rouge strength at 40,000 to 50,000 -- up form the 10,000 to 12,000 at the end of 1979. One explanation for the buildup is the return of some Khmer Rouge forces from camps in Thailand. The training and promotion of backup activists is also believed to have helped swell their ranks. In addition, the Khmer Rouge are said to be acquiring a growing stockpie of small arms, ammunition, and medicine.

Some Western sources consider these estimates too high. A year ago, says one , the Khmer Rouge lost its rural base and was largely pushed into the jungles. Last September the flow of Khmer Rouge refugees into Thailand suggested high rates of malnutrition, medicine, and ammunition shortages. Today, he notes, these problems have been largely overcome.

Opinion is also divided on whether the Khmer Rouge can now be a more powerful military force. Since March there has been a step-up of Khmer Rouge ambushes, shellings, and other small-scale attacks, according to one analyst.

To maintain political recognition as the legitimate government of Cambodia. The Khmer rouge may be forced into more drastic action, according to this line of reasoning.

One choice would be to capture and hold a small town. Another would be to mortar a Cambodian city where international relief workers and journalists would be present to report the attack. Possible targets are the capital city of Phnom Penh or Kompong Som, where aid is funneled.

So far the increasing numbers of journalists and relief workers admitted by the Vietnam-backed Heng Samrin government have reported the security situation is good. They report little sign of Khmer Rouge activity. Such attacks would puncture this impression, and give the Khmer Rouge a political advantage.

Still, some military analysts are skeptical. They doubt the coming "wet season" will hobble the Vietnamese.

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