Return to Indochina; Kampuchea: rolling-slowly-back to 'normal'

The train to Battambang is one of the sights which any visitor to Kampuchea (Cambodia) must see.

The train carries a machine gun and hundreds of people who cling to the roof, stuff the cars, and hang from the sides. It is one of Kampuchea's lifelines.

Smugglers working along the border with neighboring Thailand use the train to ship to the capital city of Phnom Penh not only cloth, food, and medicines, but also radios and cassette recorders.

In a country which hasn't had much to celebrate lately, the arrivals and departures of the train are festive occasions. Indeed, a glimpse of the train rolling through the countryside, with its passengers happily waving, makes it easy to forget such a trip has sometimes met with disaster. The hated and feared Khmer Rouge frequently mine the tracks. On one occasion, they ambushed the train and were reported to have killed more than 200 people.

To many Kampucheans the train is a symbol of the country coming back to life.

Like the train to Battambang, today's Kampuchea is moving, but that movement is still unsteady. The country's future remains uncertain, its gains fragile. For one thing, the green of the rice fields is deceptive. Kampuchea still needs substantial food imports. A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report estimates that largely because of bad weather, Kampuchea's grain shortfall for 1982 will be 280,000 tons, slightly worse than last year's.

Kampuchea's ultimate stability depends on moves made by both regional powers and superpowers, moves which are largely beyond its control. The country is caught in the middle of old rivalries between Thailand and Vietnam and new rivalries between China and the Soviet Union. What the Kampuchean people themselves think or feel seems to be of scarce interest to these nations as they maneuver for power and influence.

Consider a capsule history of what this nation of some 5.5 to 6 million people has been through over the past 12 years:

* 1970-1975: coup d'etat, North Vietnamese invasion, South Vietnamese and American invasions, US bombing.

* 1975-1978: mass executions and forced labor under the Khmer Rouge, one of history's most brutal regimes.

* 1978-1982: Vietnamese invasion and occupation, famine, guerrilla war.

The Khmer Rouge killed many of the country's best-educated people, destroyed everything from automobiles to schools, banks, and Buddhist pagodas, organized much of the country into what amounted to labor camps, and abolished currency and the postal service.

The country's new rulers are still discovering mass graves, shocking reminders of Khmer Rouge brutality.

As one Kampuchean official put it, ''To get back to the level where we were in 1969 will take many years.''

The train to Battambang is, of course, only one sign of new life. One can find many others in the once-abandoned city of Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh has come a long way.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge communists drove nearly the entire population out of the capital city and began their three-and-a-half-year reign of terror.

In December 1978 Vietnam invaded Kampuchea and installed a government in Phnom Penh headed by Heng Samrin, a former Khmer Rouge military commander. The Vietnamese-Khmer Rouge struggle disrupted spring planting and brought famine.

But over the past two years, thanks in part to international aid, the threat of famine has been conquered. Phnom Penh has begun to resemble the city it was before Kampuchea was drawn directly into the Indochina war.

Phnom Penh's mechanics have salvaged a considerable number of vehicles from the Khmer Rouge holocaust, constructing such oddities as a jeep with a tractor's engine. New Honda motorbikes have been smuggled in from Thailand. Bicycles are the most popular form of transportation. But the city occasionally experiences something resembling a minor traffic jam, even a fender-bender or two.

Other signs of life: In 1980, the regime restored the use of currency and postal, telephone, and telegraphic services. Government officials started to get paid in riels, the currency, instead of rice.

The reopening of the National Theater, with its traditional dances, brought tears to the eyes of many in the audiences.

Courting, which had been discouraged under the Khmer Rouge, is back in style. Near the former Royal Palace, facing the Tonle Sap River, couples stroll past small stands, where the vendors sell eggs, dried fish, and sugar cane juice.

Then there is the baby boom. Phnom Penh is full of one- and two-year-old children. For some of the older children, life in the city has meant discovering toys for the first time. Apparently few toys were available under the Khmer Rouge.

The population of once-empty Phnom Penh now exceeds 500,000. Government attempts to discourage people from coming into the city from the countryside have largely failed. Quite a few of those now living in the city are peasants. But in many ways, Phnom Penh displays a good deal more productive energy and private enterprise than another much larger city located just 150 miles to the southeast, Ho Chi Minh City.

The Vietnamese, who obviously exercise a major influence here, have decided for the time being to tolerate a more free-swinging economy than they would countenance in their own country. The smallness of the Kampuchean Communist Party -- fewer than 100,000 members -- almost requires that a certain diversity be permitted. The Vietnamese-supported Kampuchean government contains any number of Western-trained officials who would probably favor a continuation of some form of free enterprise.

''We would rather have capitalism,'' whispered one Kampuchean official whom I chanced to meet.

Tailors, barbers, hairdressers, shopkeepers, and even a few television repairmen are active in Phnom Penh. Free markets bustle. Officials say private enterprise will continue to play an important role for some time.

But how long all this will last, no one really knows. At some point, the government is likely to crack down. The authorities closed one restaurant, because they said its owner was intending to use it to promote prostitution.

''In the future, the economy will come under state ownership,'' said Som Chen , governor of Kampot Province.

''But we are doing things step by step . . . ,'' he said in an interview. ''It will take many years. We don't confiscate from the people.''

So, for the time being, the Vietnamese communists seem to be in the ironic position of protecting free enterprise in Kampuchea from the clutches of a group of radical communists -- the Khmer Rouge.

Phnom Penh has its problems, of course, among them shortages of power and water and an accumulation of waste and debris from the war years. The city's private enterprise, active though it may be, is not generating the kind of capital needed to rebuild the country. Much of the profit from private trade flows back to neighboring Thailand.

Outside Phnom Penh, the country's problems become even more apparent.

Roads are full of holes. One is doing well to drive at 15 to 20 m.p.h. The government lacks experienced administrators and technicians. Kampot Province's governor, Som Chen was once an elementary schoolteacher. Khuy Sien, mayor of the city of Kampot, used to run a small English school in Phnom Penh.

The Kampuchean government has improved its skills to the point where a number of Vietnamese advisers have been withdrawn from the district and village level.

Unfortunately for Hanoi, however, the ousted Khmer Rouge have also been improving their skills -- military skills. Because they are hated by so many Kampucheans, the Khmer Rouge have been limited in their ability to recruit new soldiers. But with the support of China, they have been able to improve their leadership, organization, and communications, thus recovering from the disarray in which they found themselves after their ouster from Phnom Penh.

Over the past year or so, relief workers who travel around the country have detected more insecurity. The Khmer Rouge are mining more roads, for instance. They are far from strong enough to oust the Vietnamese Army from Kampuchea, but they can help to slow down the Heng Samrin regime's consolidation of control.

"Many of the places we traveled to in 1980 were off limits in 1981,'' said one relief worker.

In the meantime, the Vietnamese-supported regime in Phnom Penh has built a Kampuchean Army estimated to number about 30,000. At first, some young men apparently joined because they knew they would not starve in the Army. With more food available, however, the Army is said to be having a harder time recruiting.

As it is, the Vietnamese Army seems to have its hands full holding defensive positions in Kampuchea. The Vietnamese can contain the Khmer Rouge, apparently, but they have thus far been unable, or unwilling, to make the effort needed to destroy the Khmer Rouge.

China's support for the Khmer Rouge and its 1978 invasion of Vietnam have forced the Vietnamese to maintain the fourth- or fifth-largest army in the world. The best Vietnamese troops are tied down defending the northern border of Vietnam against China.

Two peoples could hardly be more different than the Kampucheans and the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese are generally disciplined and competitive. The Khmers are attached to a more easygoing way of life than that which exists in densely populated Vietnam. For centuries, the Vietnamese have been encroaching on Kampuchea.

Together with the Thais, they have reduced Kampuchea to a shadow of the kingdom which it once was.

Kampuchea's relations with Vietnam have been bitterer than with any other people. The southern third of Vietnam, containing the rich Mekong Delta, was part of the Khmer kingdom until the late 17th century. Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, was once a Khmer fishing village.

Despite all the strain which Kampuchea places on Vietnam, the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea may well be irreversible. Foreigners living in Phnom Penh say they frequently hear complaints from Kampucheans about the occupation. But they also say that faced with a choice, most Kampucheans would choose the Vietnamese over the return of the Khmer Rouge. For this reason, while there is no great fervor for the Vietnamese installed regime of Heng Samrin, it, like the Vietnamese Army, does seem to be tolerated.

In Kampot Province, to the southwest of Phnom Penh, Vietnamese troops whom this reporter saw looked relaxed. They appeared to be growing much of their own food, thus not depending on the Kampucheans. Several of the soldiers could be seen sitting and talking with Kampucheans. Some have apparently begun to learn the Khmer language. A few of the soldiers moved along roads unarmed, either singly or in pairs, as though they had little to fear.

Working for the most part through Kampuchean government-supplied interpreters on a short visit, one can hardly make a scientific survey of Kampuchean public opinion.

But partly on the basis of talks with Kampuchea specialists in Thailand and in the United States, one impression seeps through: Prince Norodom Sihanouk, former chief of state, is still esteemed by a good number of Kampuchea's peasants, some of whom still refer to themselves as his ''children.'' The forces under his nominal command are at this stage, however, disorganized and almost inconsequential.

Former Prime Minister Son Sann, a bespectacled gentleman with the manners of a mandarin, hardly looks like a resistance fighter. But his Khmer People's National Liberation Front has a following in the cities among intellectuals and middle-level officials of the Heng Samrin regime.

So far, the armed forces (estimated at about 7,000 soldiers) under the command of this anticommunist leader do not amount to much, however, when compared with the battle-hardened troops fighting for Hanoi (an estimated 150, 000 to 200,000) and for the Khmer Rouge (35,000 to 40,000).

In the end, it is the Chinese-supplied Khmer Rouge who are likely to remain the main force opposing the Vietnamese. They are kept alive by Chinese arms shipped through Thailand and by the international food aid which reaches their supporters. What keeps these Kampucheans fighting for some of history's worst despots?

Analysts say that the Kampucheans' traditional hatred for the Vietnamese accounts for some of this guerrilla resistance. But there are also some dirt-poor farmers among the Khmer Rouge supporters who apparently never suffered as much from the repression of 1975-78 as did some others.

Oddly enough, the United States, which once sent its fighter-bombers to attack Khmer Rouge troops encircling Phnom Penh, votes today in the United Nations in favor of the Khmer Rouge, or Democratic Kampuchean, regime, in order to deny a seat to the Heng Samrin regime. American humanitarian aid helped prevent starvation in Kampuchea. But the US, which once played such a major role in this part of the world, now seems to be almost on the diplomatic sidelines, leaving any major initiatives to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand - and to China.

Some of the ASEAN nations have indicated that if a ''loose coalition'' of Khmers opposing the Vietnamese is formed, they would consider supplying arms to the noncommunist factions among them. China, intent on ''bleeding'' Vietnam, is expected to continue supplying the Khmer Rouge.

Since they are the ones who have to do the fighting, some Kampucheans have mixed feelings about this business of ''bleeding'' the Vietnamese.

''Perhaps Vietnam will be bled, but perhaps we will be exterminated,'' said a Khmer resistance leader who asked not to be identified. ''China is a very big country. What is the cost for them over five, 10 years? Nothing. But for us, -- we have only a few million left -- the cost is great.''

Some American scholars question whether a policy of punishing the Vietnamese through guerrilla war will really achieve what the United States wants to achieve in this region, which is to reduce the presence and influence of the Soviet Union. The US policy of putting an international economic squeeze on Vietnam may only drive the Vietnamese closer to the Soviet Union, they say.

But for the most part, the United States is taking a backseat role in this part of the world. US diplomats say that the US should defer to the wishes of ASEAN.

Among the ASEAN nations, it is Thailand which is said to be on the Indochina ''frontline.'' Once widely considered to be a domino which might topple if Saigon and Phnom Penh fell, Thailand has instead become something of a domino in reverse motion. Through Kampuchea, the Thais have found ways to pressure their old rivals, the Vietnamese.

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