Washington Bee Vong Rith was studying history at the University in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, when the city fell to Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge troops in April 1975. Of his 30-member family, he was the only one to survive four years under Pol Pot. Madame Mom Kamel was a prima ballerina in the Cambodian Royal Ballet until Pol Pot abolished it along with music, religion, and most other forms of Khmer culture. She escaped execution only by lying about her profession and was forced to work in the rice fields until the Vietnamese invaded the country in 1979 and unseated Pol Pot. I met these and hundred of other Pol Pot survivors last December during a visit to refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border. I was soon numbed by their stories of starvation and brutal executions at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, who attempted to exterminate Cambodia's educated and ruling classes. I was also numbed by the new this month that the United States plans to again vote to seat Pol Pot's representatives at the United Nations. The administration should reconsider its decision and vote in support of neither regime. Support for Pol Pot would be an unnecessary and ill-advised choice that could have serious repercussions for thousands of Cambodian refugees. American officials would like to see a neutral government in Phnom Penh as a buffer between Vietnam and Thailand, our ally. They believe that reasserting the legitimacy of the Khmer Rouge may convince Vietnam to enter into negotiations that could lead to a government friendlier to Thailand, if not neutral. Attempts to achieve this goal through rapprochement with Vietnam are dismissed as naive. US strategists feel that the Khmer Rouge army, which receives covert aid from China and Thailand, could mount enough resistance to force the Vietnamese to the bargaining table. The Khmer Rouge control several enclaves in mountainous western Cambodia and periodically skirmish with the Vietnamese, who control the rest of the country. However, the assumptions underlying the decision to cast a symbolic vote against Vietnam are, at the least, questionable. Pol Pot, with no more than 30,000 troops holding out against a 200,000-man Vietnamese force, has little hope of posing a serious threat to the Vietnamese or pushing them into negotiations. The Vietnamese are efficiently consolidating their control of the countryside, and the traditional Khmer antipathy for them seems to be tempered by memories of the regime the Vietnamese replaced. The administration's realpolitikm ignores the plight of the 67,000 refugees in makeshift camps along the Thai-Cambodian border and the 120,000 at Khao-I-Dang, an "official" camp just seven miles inside Thailand. Life in a refugee camp is always tenuous but, if Pol Pot is reseated, the chances of a major Vietnamese attack on or near the refugee settlements will increase dramatically. The Vietnamese have been lobbying hard for Heng Samrin, but they are willing to resort to drastic military remedies when diplomatic approaches fail. This spring they protested UN and Thai plans for a voluntary refugee repatriation program they believed was designed to return Khmer Rouge supporters to Cambodia. When the program started despite their challenges, the Vietnamese launched punitive raids against Thailand. Hundreds of refugees were killed or wounded in the crossfire. Vietnam saw the repatration program as part of a larger plan by Thailand, the US, and China to aid the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese leaders can be expected to interpret anther US vote for Pol Pot as further evidence of American participation in an international scheme to isolate them. Some observers expect that, if the Vietnamese attempt to use diplomatic leverage on Pol Pot fails, the invaders will most likely revert to military action -- probably an assault at the start of the dry season (late November to mid-December) aimed at wiping out the Khmer Rouge and punishing the anticommunist refugees along the border and directly inside Thailand. Although Thailand supports Pol Pot in the UN, some Thai officials say privately they are convinced that, if Heng samrin loses, Vietnam will launch a massive attack -- that could reach Khao-I-Dang. Trying to second-guess the Vietnamese is difficult, but why should US policies run even the slightest risk f inflicting more suffering on the battered Cambodian people? The most perplexing aspect of the US announcement is that it implies a dilemma that does not exist -- whether to seat Pol Pot or Heng Samrin. Neither deserves recognition; Pol Pot is a butcher and Heng Samrin was installed by force of arms of a foreign invader. However, the US does not have to vote for either. It can abstain or push for a vote to seat neither party. Opting for "none of the above" is much more likely to achieve US foreign policy goals, reduce the potential for hostilities, and send consistent signals on human rights.
Don Leverty is managing editr of The Blue Sheet, a weekly newspaper of federal health policy news.