Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge troops have been known for their ferocity toward civilian and military foes alike. But Westerners who witnessed the aftermath of the capture last week of the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Phnom Chat in Kampuchea report a new sight: disarray and demoralization among the Khmer Rouge troops retreating from a Vietnamese attack. Some of the troops reportedly even refused orders to go back into battle.
As the largest of three factions in the anti-Vietnamese rebel group supported by China, the United States, and the noncommunist nations of Southeast Asia, the Khmer Rouge has carried the brunt of resistance against Vietnam's occupation of Kampuchea. They have been regarded as highly disciplined and well armed, under the leadership of Pol Pot and other top leaders of the Kampuchean regime ousted by Vietnam in 1979.
After seizure of Phnom Chat by the Vietnamese and Heng Samrin troops, the Khmer Rouge troops split into two groups and headed for the Thai border. When they got there, a Western observer says, ''They were just milling around, they were no longer an army, just a group of men in rout.''
The troops were regulars, about 3,000 in number from Pol Pot's 519th Division , which had its headquarters at Phnom Chat. Some of them had apparently just been resupplied.
''The Chinese markings on their rocket-launchers were still shiny, the straps on their weapons were still stiff,'' the observer said. ''They even had brand-new uniforms.''
When one group of Khmer Rouge troops reached the border, the observer said, they crossed the Thai-built tank ditch - the psychological boundary between Thailand and Kampuchea - and moved close to Thai positions, apparently seeking protection. They were turned back by a Thai officer who threatened to turn his own ranger units - also known for their ferocity - on the stragglers. The Pol Pot men with civilian dependents returned to the Kampuchean side, only to rush back in panic when two Vietnamese artillery shells landed some distance away from them.
When food trucks provided by the United Nations Border Relief Operation (UNBRO) reached the Khmer Rouge troops and civilians, the visiting Westerner said, Khmer Rouge soldiers forced their way to the head of the line. UNBRO officials, who are supposed to feed only women and children, were intensely angered by this, the observer said, but had little choice but to feed them.
The next day Khmer Rouge cadres called on the men to return to the battle. Some openly refused, and by the end of the day, the observer says, few of them had gone away.
Some of the troops seemed to have lost any will to fight. ''I know it's over (for us),'' a Khmer Rouge veteran reportedly said.
The fight for Phnom Chat seems to have been short and one-sided. Civilians from the Khmer Rouge settlement of Chom Kakor, adjoining the military base at Phnom Chat, say that the attacking troops took them completely by surprise.
After an artillery bombardment on the night of March 31, Vietnamese troops accompanied by a substantial number of soldiers of Hanoi's ally, the Heng Samrin regime, burst into the camp from the western, or Thai side, refugees reported. The attack came without warning, as the guards around the settlement had been quietly overcome by the raiders.
The refugees told a Western observer that the attackers told them to go farther into the interior of Kampuchea. Some 2,000 apparently did so, but the others stumbled toward the Thai border. As they went they triggered mines placed along the frontier to discourage Vietnamese incursions.
Attention in the Thai capital is now focused on another Khmer resistance base , Ban Sangae, just north of Phnom Chat. The camp, controlled by the noncommunist Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF), led by Son Sann, is said to hold about 20,000 civilians and up to 7,000 fighters.
This is the bulk of the KPNLF forces and is held by observers here to be the most likely target for the next Vietnamese-Heng Samrin assault.