'Mr. Donut goes home to lead Cambodia's new third force
Bangkok, Thailand — Thach Rang once ran a ''Mr. Donut'' franchise in southern California. Now he is the major general who commands ''special forces'' in the anticommunist resistance fighting to expel Vietnam's Army from Cambodia.
Today there is a new kind of ''migration,'' as Cambodian refugees return to their country to fight. Their aim: an independent Cambodia, free from both communism and Vietnamese domination.
Many of the returnees are prominent Cambodians who had fled into exile in the United States and other countries.
Their direction has reversed as they return home to accept a more perilous existence on their own soil. Returnees have abandoned comfortable lives and promising careers and forsaken any guarantee that they can be ''second-time'' refugees should they have to flee again.
The example and contribution of these returnees is encouraging the small but persistent anticommunist military resistance to the Vietnam-backed Phnom Penh government of Heng Samrin.
An important aim of these determined returnees is to keep alive the hope of a noncommunist Cambodia and provide an alternative to another group fighting the Phnom Penh government: the Chinese-backed anti-Vietnamese communist force known as the Khmer Rouge.
One example is Gen. Sak Sutsakhan, the last noncommunist head of state and military commander before the communist Khmer Rouge victory in 1975.
Six years later the general has returned to Cambodia -- from Washington.
''During the years of Pol Pot (the communist Khmer Rouge leader) the first priority was to save my family,'' he says. ''Now it is to save my country.''
The general will take a senior post with an anticommunist, anti-Vietnamese Cambodian resistance group known as the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF). He had been working in the KPNLF's information office in Washington. His wife and family are staying there at present.
Another of the KPNLF's senior officials, Dr. Gaffar Beang Meth, left his American wife and three sons in the state of Michigan, where he was a university professor.
''I still feel Cambodian . . . and they need me here,'' he said, looking around the jungle clearing in western Cambodia close to the Thai border where the KPNLF has its headquarters.
For the KPNLF's military commander, Gen. Dien Del, there appears never to have been any doubt about coming back. He was working in a New York supermarket when he decided to return.
''It was always my intention to come back,'' he says.
His wife and two young children are still in New York, where his wife works as a bookkeeper.
Boun Say gave up a good job as an accountant in Toulouse, France, to become the KPNLF's treasurer. Today his office is a leaky jungle hut. He uses children's exercise books to keep the front's accounts.
Soun Kaset, the front's press officer, is a widow whose husband was killed by the communist Khmer Rouge government. Her three children are at school in Paris, where relatives look after them.
The eldest, age 18, already talks of going home to Cambodia.
''We don't want our children to be without roots,'' says Mrs. Kaset. ''That consideration is always in our minds.''
The president of the KPNLF, which terms itself ''noncommunist,'' is Son Sann. He was prime minister under Prince Norodom Sihanouk more than a decade ago.
All resistance groups, including the communists, appear to regard Son Sann as the most suitable leader of an interim nationalist government. Many in the outside world clearly see him as the only national figure fit to lead a free and neutral Cambodia.
When the tragedy that overtook Cambodia after the communist victory in 1975 became known to the outside world, refugees in France entreated Son Sann to lead a rescue operation.
At the time he was living in comfortable retirement in France, where the war had driven him in 1974. He hesitated for six months because he said he felt too old (he is now 70) and too disheartened by what had happened to his people.
When he at last agreed to lead the resistance group that later became the KPNLF, he told his supporters:
''We must be democratic, we must be clean, we must be open, we must be united. Otherwise it is useless to start anew.''
He was referring to corruption and the bitter divisions in Cambodian society that he blamed for the national tragedy.
The rescue operation began with Son Sann and 14 other Cambodians in Paris. Their object was to save Khmer culture and human lives from the destruction inflicted by the Khmer Rouge under its communist leader, Pol Pot.
The front's first funds were raised by a troupe of Cambodian classical dancers, among them Mrs. Kaset. Before their first show they had three months retraining by a sister of Prince Sihanouk.
The only theater they could afford to rent was a vast shed in a cattle market in the northern suburbs of Paris. But at the end of the show, they collected $2 ,000 from the audience.The money bought food and medicine for Cambodians still fighting the communists. It enabled others to bribe their way to freedom.
Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia killed the troupe for reasons that underline the terrible divisions that still exist among the Cambodians.
Son Sann's people condemned Prince Sihanouk for speaking for the Khmer Rouge regime at the United Nations. As many of the dancers were related to the prince, they said they could not dance again with Son Sann's group.The old foes, Sihanouk, Son Sann, and the veteran communist leaders of the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, have come together at recent meetings in Bangkok and Singapore in a demonstration of solidarity that clearly does not go far.
The two noncommunist groups have said they will join hands against the Vietnamese in a loose coalition with Sihanouk as head of state and Son Sann prime minister. The new grouping would in effect replace the United Nations-recognized Khmer Rouge guerrilla government. But the Khmer Rouge themselves have not at this writing agreed to affiliate themselves with the new grouping.
As the new arrangements would weaken Khmer Rouge primacy, it may refuse to join unless pushed by its major ally, China.
Both the Thai government and Son Sann have asked the Chinese to do just that.
The formation of the coalition is seen by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as an opportunity to give the Son Sann and Sihanouk forces parity with the Khmer Rouge, which now has four times as many armed men.
ASEAN officials admit that the coalition can be a useful cover for foreign nations to supply arms legitimately to the noncommunists while denying them to the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian government recognized by the United Nations.
Singapore is the only nation yet to promise military and other aid to the resistance groups. But Malaysia's foreign minister, Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie, said in Bangkok recently that other countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere were ready to send supplies.
Ghazali said donor countries could direct their aid to a specific group, thus satisfying misgivings they might have about giving weapons to the notorious Khmer Rouge.
Son Sann and some of his senior officials today (Nov 29) began visits to Western Europe and North America in search of material aid for the KPNLF.
According to Walter J. Stoessel Jr., undersecretary of state for politicial affairs, who was recently in the region, the US government will give ''political , moral, and humanitarian support'' to the resistance groups. He said the US has no plans to go beyond that.