Khmer Rouge try desperately to win back popular support

Eight saffron-robed Buddhist monks sit praying on the floor of a makeshift pagoda, intoning the chants of antiquity. Surrounded by the lush greens of jungle vegetation, the monks are a compelling sight. But more striking than the color combination is that this pagoda exists at all in the Khmer Rouge-controlled areas of Kampuchea (Cambodia).

From 1975-78, when Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge held power in Kampuchea, Buddhism was ruthlessly suppressed. The saffron robes that flowed ubiquitously in this devoutly Buddhist country before 1975 disappeared completely in the maelstrom of the revolution that followed.

Monks fled, were killed, or were forced to work as ordinary laborers. Buddhism was seen as a vestige of feudalism that Kampuchea's revolutionaries wanted to obliterate and as a social force that conflicted with the rigid new order the Khmer Rouge sought to impose.

Today, however, in an effort to win back the support of millions of Kampucheans whose experiences have taught them to hate the Khmer Rouge, Buddhism has been given a reverential spot to flourish in Phum Thmei. This is a Khmer Rouge-controlled village of several thousand inhabitants close to the Thai border in a corner of northwest Kampuchea.

Says Nget Tuon, an aging monk who fled to safe haven in the Phnom Chat refugee camp in the wake of Vietnam's 1979 invasion of Kampuchea: ''When the Vietnamese started attacking Phnom Chat in May of 1983, it became very dangerous for us there. So we asked the government of Democratic Kampuchea (the coalition government that includes the Khmer Rouge) if we could come here, and they said yes. Since we arrived, we have received everything we wanted. We are free to practice our religion and to teach.''

The Phum Thmei pagoda now houses 14 monks and 16 students. Its existence is one indication of the Khmer Rouge's ''new political policy,'' which claims to put Kampuchean national unity against the invading Vietnamese above all previous ideological considerations.

Ever since their precipitous fall from power five years ago this month, the Khmer Rouge have been trying desperately to win back support from the very people they once tried to annihilate - former city dwellers, intellectuals, businessmen, religious figures, and political and military men from previous Kampuchean governments.

To that end, the Khmer Rouge have declared the dissolution of their Communist Party and promised not to restore socialism even if they are victorious in their war with the Vietnamese. They have removed Pol Pot from political leadership, although he remains commander in chief of the armed forces. (For four years Pol Pot has not been seen in public; his place has been taken by the less tainted Khieu Samphan, who has promulgated a political program that, at least in word, commits the Khmer Rouge to a form of liberal democracy.)

Since 1982, the Khmer Rouge have been allied in a resistance coalition with the key noncommunist nationalists of Kampuchea: Prince Samdech Norodom Sihanouk and former Prime Minister Son Sann. The coalition has survived early discord and the severity of its ideological differences.

Those developments may be meaningless abstractions for large numbers of Kampucheans who bitterly recall the massacres and extremist policies of Pol Pot's years in power. Yet a steady trickle of refugees and people who have been living in Vietnamese-controlled areas has been arriving in the Khmer Rouge zones for two years now, willing to test the waters and to see if indeed life under the Khmer Rouge has changed.

A series of villages ranging in population from 2,000 to 5,000 has been established for the new arrivals in the vicinity of Phnom Malai, the Khmer Rouge ''capital'' in the northwest. Phum Sangkae, O Sralao - they have new names that correspond to no previous map because they have grown up in cleared areas of the once uninhabited jungle. Each village has a school and a hospital, and one or more general stores where light consumer goods are bought and sold using Thai baht. Even such a rudimentary commercial life represents a break with the past when the Khmer Rouge strictly forbade all use of currency and any private sector economy.

Today, the private sector functions semi-anarchically. Families are free to grow vegetables, raise poultry and pigs, and plant rice in newly cleared fields. Previously, the civilian population in the Khmer Rouge zones was almost entirely reliant on United Nations-administered humanitarian food aid. This year the village chief of Phum Sangkae said that 30 percent of the rice needed by the people of the village would be cultivated locally.

Makeshift huts built by refugees when they first arrived are being replaced by more permanent structures built with more care out of better materials.

Malaria, rampant at the beginning of the war five years ago, has now been brought under some control, although it remains the chief health problem.

The variety of daily life represents the most dramatic change from the conformity of the Khmer Rouge past when everyone was encouraged to dress, eat, and work alike. Women again wear the brightly colored sarongs that had disappeared in the time when almost everyone wore Khmer Rouge black. Walking through villages, one encounters traditional musicians, guitar players, chess players, students learning English, moonshiners working their stills, and peasants gambling on cock fights - all scenes that were unthinkable in the Khmer Rouge's Kampuchea five years ago.

Dams, reservoirs, and bridges are under construction in many locales, suggesting a sense of stability and permanence not present in the early period of the war when Khmer Rouge positions fell to the Vietnamese like dominoes during dry-season offensives.

Impressive as this display of normalityis, it seems eerily superficial in the absence of a substantial political critique of what happened in the 1975-78 period. While the Khmer Rouge acknowledge the ''serious errors'' of those years and admit that ''thousands'' of people were killed, they still refuse to answer for the extreme brutality and far greater death toll believed by most Kampucheans to have been their responsibility.

Instead it appears that the Khmer Rouge are hoping that the nightmarish memories of those years can be erased by the passage of time, combined with impressive contemporary Khmer Rouge accomplishments in leading the military campaign against the Vietnamese and providing an increasingly more comfortable life for those who come to live in the areas they control.

A diplomatic source in Bangkok maintains, ''There are credible reports that the Kampuchean people are beginning to forget the past under Pol Pot.''

Forget is too strong a word. That would seem to be impossible. But that there are at least tens of thousands of Kampucheans willing to put aside the past is apparent.

Whether hundreds of thousands will do so - enough to have a material effect on the balance of forces in the war with the Vietnamese and to provide the Khmer Rouge with a permanent civilian base for recruitment - remains to be seen.

Next: The view from Phnom Penh

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