A pitched propaganda battle is under way to sway the outcome of a debate set for later this month on who will represent Cambodia at the United Nations. Behind the war of words lies a potentially explosive confrontation between Soviet- backed Vietnam and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), especially Thailand.
At issue is just which "government" should fill Cambodia's seat in the UN General Assembly. China and the five non-communist ASEAN countries (Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines) want the Khmer Rouge guerrillas to continue to be recognized as the country's legal representative.
Entrenched on the other side is Vietnam, which wants its "client," the Phnom Penh- based Heng Samrin government, to fill the seat.
Vietnamese forces installed the Heng Samrin regime early last year after defeating the atrocity-tarnished khmer Rouge government in a lightning invasion.
The United States, for its part, supported the China-ASEAN position last year , although it didn't recognize the Khmer Rouge. The US stance this year remains unclear.
The ASEAN-China argument against seating a government installed by an outside army is exected to prevail during next month's debate, as it did last year.
That argument: Vietnam's 200,000 troops must be withdrawn from Cambodia before there is talk of change. The Khmer Rouge, in the meantime, should remain the representative, despite a record of mass killings.
The opposing view is that Vietnam's troops are necessary to prevent the well-organized but widely hated Khmer Rouge from making a comeback. Many Cambodians have told journalists they reluctantly accept the Vietnamese presence as the lesser of two evils.
This argument holds that the Heng Samrin government's de facto control and widespread popular acceptance should be the key factors in deciding who to seat.
Preparing for the debate, the Khmer Rouge has launched a major effort to "change its stripes." A stream of Western journalists has been invited to Khmer rouge bases in western Cambodia, to find cordial urbane eladers attempting to bury their "hatchet man" image. Premier Khieu Samphan and his deputy, Ieng Sary , have even declared that the Khmer Rouge is no longer communist or socialist.
Meanwhile, in trying to rally international support, China is adopting a more legalistic approach to the question, jettisoning the blanket approval it once gave the Khmer Rouge.
Said an official Xinhua News commentary: "It should be pointed out that to safeguard democratic Kampuchea's [Khmer Rouge] lawful seat in the UN is one thing and to . . . approve of its policies is another. . . . The recognition of a government does not mean approving of its policies."
The important thing, the commentary added, is to avoid UN recognition of the Heng Samrin government because that would accept the use of force by one country to overthrow the government of another.
ASEAN officials recently held a three-day meeting in Manila to discuss their UN lobbying strategy on Cambodia.
Vietnam sees ASEAN's support for the Khmer Rouge as collusion with China aimed at militarily and economically weakening Hanoi. ASEAN sees Vietnam's influence in Cambodia and Laos as the first thrust in a drive to dominate Southeast Asia.
Behind all the legalistic maneuvering lies the potential for more fighting between Vietnam and Thailand. Vietnam recently indirectly warned that it might repeat its June 23 attack on Thailand. "Thailand's security will not be insured unless Peking and Washington give up their policy to use Bangkok against Vietnam , Laos, and Kampuchea," Radio HAnoi said.
A day later a top Chinese foreign affairs official, Han Nianlong, countered: "If Vietnam invades Thailand, we will not ignore it. We will counterattack Vietnam."
Growing Vietnamese boldness has been echoed by the statements of the Hanoi-backed Heng Samrin regime in Cambodia.
Foreign Minister Hun Sen reportedly threatened to "crush" UN groups distributing supplies at the Thai-Cambodian border unless they switched their aid to the Heng Samrin government. "Crush" has been a code word for military action in the past.
Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, Singapore's deputy prime minister for foreign affairs , has predicted Vietnam may again attack Thailand to focus world attention on the tense border situation rather than on Vietnam's occupation of Cambodia. US State Department official Reginald Bartholomew said in Tokyo Aug. 27 that Vietnam may again launch a limited incursion into Thailand.
Still, few expect a major war to break out. Vietnam appears to be giving limited warnings to Thailand to avoid too much support for the Khmer Rouge. Some analysts see this as a continuation of Vietnam's old "talk, fight, talk, fight" strategy.