Cambodia's war: risks and costs for all

The Vietnamese are bogged down in Cambodia (Kampuchea) in much the same way as the Soviets are bogged down in Afghanistan or, ironically, as the Americans once were in Vietnam.

This has dangerous implications for all three big powers, the United States, China, and the Soviet Union, besides multiplying human misery in the region.

For the Americans and the Chinese, the Vietnamese frustration produces the risk of escalated belligerence to break the stalemate. Recent Vietnamese attacks across the Thai border dramatize the danger.Hence, Cambodia was high on the agenda when President Carter met Chinese Chairman Hua Guofeng in Tokyo.

For the Russians, Vietnamese inability to bring Cambodia into line has serious costs. They have to foot the bill for the frustrating campaign -- at up stuck with a share of the opprobrium heaped on Vietnam by its Southeast Asian neighbors. Hence the meeting late last month in Moscow between top Vietnamese and Soviet leaders.

For the Cambodians themselves, including the half million or so refugees in Thailand, it means a continuing struggle for survival against the terrible odds of war, repression, and famine.

The Vietnamese have been trying to establish full military control over Cambodia ever since they invaded the country Dec. 25, 1978, and ousted the communist Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot. They have up to 200,000 troops in the country but still have not succeeded in quashing the guerrilla movement (perhaps 10,000-30,000 strong) Pol Pot has managed to keep going from his base in the Cardamon Mountains in southwestern Cambodia, not far from the border with Thailand.

It was perhaps a measure of Vietnamese frustration that they defied international opinion and sent their troops across the Thai border to try to dam the support that leaks through the border to the Khmer Rouge forces. In the process, the Vietnamese inflicted yet further suffering on the hapless refugees and disrupted some of the internationally organized feeding operations.

What were the specific aims of the Vietnamese in launching their border attacks during the last week of June? Probably these:

1. To teach the new Thai government a lesson and force it into a less hostile attitude toward the Vietnamese and Heng Samrin, their puppet in Cambodia.

2. To "clean up" those refugee camps on the border that have served as either sanctuaries or training-grounds for the extreme leftwing Khmer Rouge forces and for the extreme right-wing (but equally anti- Vietnamese) Khmer Serei forces.

3. To stop the repatriation of refugees from Thailand into Cambodia initiated by international relief agencies -- but (in Vietnamese eyes) used as a cover for smuggling both Khmer Rouge and Khmer Serei guerrilla fighters back into Cambodia.

The Vietnamese have been particularly irritated by what they see as collusion between the Thais and the Chinese. Their suspicions about Thai-Chinese relations will hardly have been eased by the Tokyo meeting this week of Thai Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda and Chinese Chairman Hua.

China is apparently supplying Khmer Rouge forces inside Cambodia with what they basically need. This help moves through Thailand while the Thai authorities conveniently look the other way. The Chinese aid is not impressive, but is at least the minimum needed to keep resistance to the Vietnamese going.

Vietnamese dependence on the Soviet Union, on the other hand, is massive. And the Soviet leadership must sometimes wonder why it is taking the Vietnamese so long -- and costing so much -- to bring Cambodia under their control, despite their reputation as the ruthless Prussians or Spartans of all Southeast Asia.

Ever since World War II, the Vietnamese Communist Party -- identified for so long at home and abroad with the late Ho Chi Minh -- has had the goal of establishing a dominant role for the Vietnamese in all of what was once French Indochina.

Once the Vietnamese communists had taken over South Vietnam and expelled the residual American presence in 1975, they also got what they wanted in Laos. The longtime titular communist leader there, Prince Souphanouvong, was installed as president of the republic. Laos has toed the Vietnamese line ever since.

But in Cambodia the Vietnamese have had nothing but trouble.

The communist leader in Cambodia in 1975, Pol Pot, resisted the Vietnamese attempt to give him orders. The Cambodians turned increasingly to the Chinese for support; and the Chinese gave it because they were opposed to a rival Vietnamese communist mini-empire on their southern border.

There followed the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodian in December 1978 and then the "lesson-teaching" 17-day war China launched across the Vietnamese border in February of the following year. Since then, China has supported the still-resisting Pol Pot and his fellow Khmers Rouges in their mountain refuge. And as a reminder to the Vietnamese that China has clout still, the Chinese lobbed some shells into Vietnam at the beginning of this week.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.