The China-backed Khmer Rouge appears to have begun a long-awaited offensive to harass Vietnamese forces and drive them from Cambodia (Kampuchea). The evidence is a reported by American journalist Neil Davis that Cambodian guerrillas attacked a packed train bringing civilians to Phnom Penh June 10. Survivors in Cambodia told Mr. Davis of NBC-TV that at least 150 people were killed.
Bangkok-based analysts have long predicted the Khmer Rouge would take drastic visible action to prove to the outside world it is not "dead." The Khmer Rouge, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1978, seeks to retain its widespread diplomatic recognition. But the Heng Samrin government in Phnom Penh, installed in 1979 by Vietnamese tanks, seeks to prove it should get recognition as the only real power in Cambodia.
The guerrilla forces strafed the train carrying some 8,000 persons with rockets and machine-gun fire near Romeas, about 45 miles northwest of Phnom Penh , survivors told Mr. Davis. Although no group claimed responsibility for the attack, he said many survivors believed the attackers were loyal to the Khmer Rouge.
The strike is believed to have at least two purposes:
1. To show that the Khmer Rouge is "alive and well," thus striking a propaganda blow in the battle between the China-backed Khmer Rouge and the Vietnam-backed Heng Samrin forces.
2. To disrupt Cambodia's economy and communications. Many of the passengers were bringing much-needed goods some of it smuggled from the Thai border to Phnom Penh. The attack could deter future trade.
China hopes Khmer Rouge military action will tie down Vietnamese troops, complicate Vietnam's task of defending its northern border with China, and further drain Vietnam's already troubled economy.
In public, United States officials deny they support the Khmer Rouge. But in private, some high-ranking US officials hope the Khmer Rouge pressure will eventually help push Vietnamese troops out of Cambodia.
During the winter "dry season," Vietnam refrained from a full-scale military offensive to wipe out the Khmer Rouge. Some analysts suggest Vietnam used caution because its Soviet backers were bogged down in Afghanistan and because a fullscale offensive involving "hot pursuit" into Thailand could have heightened tensions with the US.
Vietnam's Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, responding in writing to Monitor questions, said Vietnam could have eliminated the Khmer Rouge. But it refrained from doing so, he said, because it respected Thailand's territorial integrity and did not believe in "hot pursuit."
Now some Bangkok-based military analysts suggest that with the return of the wet season, Khmer Rouge forces have grown from 20,000 to as many as 50,000. These analysts have predicted military actions that would bring dramatic Western press coverage. During the last few months, Western journalists visiting Cambodia have damaged the Khmer Rouge diplomatic claim by describing the country as firmly in the hands of the Heng Samrin government.
According to survivors' accounts, the latest attack bears the brand that "Indochina hands" associate with the Khmer Rouge. The attack began when a rocket blew up the steam-engine boiler, killing many people.
The attackers then shelled other cars and sprayed the train with machine-gun fire. Shortly afterward, according to survivors, the guerrillas bayonetted, shot and terrorized the passengers.
Observers say the style of the attack appeared designed to frighten would-be traders from helping to bring more stability to the country. The China-backed Khmer Rouge want to create as much anarchy as possible to thwart the Vietnamese from restoring order in Cambodia.