Cambodian resistance: to what end?

IT is time for the United States to reverse its policy of supporting the existing coalition between noncommunist Cambodian groups and the Democratic Kampuchea of the former tyrant Pol Pot. The US should call for the withdrawal of the noncommunists from the coalition so that they can play the only realistic role possible for them: negotiating with the Vietnamese-sponsored People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) for an internal political settlement. The ease with which Vietnamese troops pushed Son Sann's Khmer People's National Liberation Front out of its main base near the Thai border has demonstrated graphically that the noncommunists have merely been serving as a front for the Khmer Rouge war against the Vietnamese in Cambodia. In fact, the front was never intended by its Association of Southeastern Asian Nations (ASEAN) and American backers to present any serious military challenge to the Vietnamese. The idea was always to get Son Sann and Cambodia's Prince Norodom Sihanouk to join Pol Pot's rump regime to save the latter's seat in the United Nations. Thailand, which played the greatest role in pressing the noncommunist leaders to join such a coalition, told Son Sann that his front should concern itself primarily with ``political struggle,'' since the Khmer Rouge were already taking care of the military struggle.

True, ASEAN and US officials did talk in 1981 and 1982 about building up the noncommunist resistance, so that the choice in Cambodia would no longer be between the Vietnamese occupation and Pol Pot and his associates. But when pressed, they explained that they had no intention of turning the front into a major fighting force on the order of the Khmer Rouge. In effect, therefore, the US and ASEAN have consistently supported a division of labor in Cambodia: The forces under Pol Pot's command are expected to keep up the military pressure on Vietnam, while the noncommunists are to lend diplomatic acceptability to the Khmer Rouge.

The US, as one of the key supporters of the noncommunist resistance should return to an issue it has ignored for more than two years: Why should Sihanouk and Son Sann be forced by the threat of a cutoff of all external assistance and access to the border area to ally themselves with their sworn enemies, the Khmer Rouge? Sihanouk vowed in 1979 never to collaborate with the Khmer Rouge. Son Sann courageously resisted pressures to ally with Pol Pot's group for more than 18 months before succumbing.

Some US officials quietly opposed the shotgun wedding in the first place. Tying Sihanouk and Son Sann to the Khmer Rouge, they argued, would damage their credibility with the population inside Cambodia, perpetuate ASEAN's reliance on the Khmer Rouge, and make it easier for the Vietnamese to justify their military presence in the country.

Now another compelling reason can be added against forcing the noncommunists to stay in a coalition dominated by Pol Pot's Army and clique of leaders. If there is to be a negotiated settlement of the Cambodian conflict, it will have to be between the noncommunists and the PRK. The Vietnamese have suggested that there could be a coalition between the PRK and the noncommunists, provided the latter renounce their alliance with the Khmer Rouge. Sihanouk has frequently expressed his willingness to explore such a settlement, as long as it involved a Vietnamese military withdrawal.

The argument against allowing the noncommunists to be independent of the Khmer Rouge and thus free to negotiate with the PRK is that it would weaken the resistance at a time when the Vietnamese are still resisting ASEAN's terms for a settlement. But there is a joker in the ASEAN position which is not generally appreciated. ASEAN's terms for a settlement would allow Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to be part of the government that would carry out elections after the Vietnamese troops have withdrawn -- something Hanoi will never agree to and most Khmers fear. So the US and ASEAN are saying that the Pol Pot Army must be supported until such time as the Vietnamese agree to allow Pol Pot to participate in a settlement.

No amount of talk about international peacekeeping or free elections can change the fact that the Khmer Rouge will have the capability to take over unless a larger, stronger military force remains in Cambodia, or unless they are deprived of external support and their leaders forced to leave the country. A force of Swedes, Nigerians, Algerians, and Indonesians would be useless in trying to prevent a Khmer Rouge takeover. For ASEAN and the US to insist that such an essentially dishonest proposal must be the basis for a settlement is to doom Cambodia to another decade of war and internal instability.

The real problem is that behind Pol Pot is a Chinese leadership that is still determined to have its pound of Vietnamese flesh. Pol Pot's Army has been and remains a Chinese instrument for keeping the Vietnamese bogged down in Cambodia and therefore economically weak and diplomatically isolated. China does not want peace in Cambodia as long as it can use the Khmer Rouge to keep the war going.

China is able to pursue this destabilizing policy toward Indochina with impunity because the US and ASEAN go along with it. ASEAN lacks the internal consensus to oppose China openly on Cambodia, while the Reagan administration quietly cheers China on. In this Machiavellian game of Southeast Asian politics, the real losers are the noncommunist leaders and groups whom the US claims to be supporting and the Cambodian people.

Gareth Porter is a specialist on international security affairs now working on a study of regional security in Southeast Asia for the Reischauer Center of the School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University, Washington, D.C.

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