Norodom Sihanouk's popularity is his coalition's key weapon against Vietnamese

Erratic, indiscreet, and unpredictable, Prince Norodom Sihanouk is still the key to the effort to push Vietnam out of Kampuchea. The prince openly says that he dislikes being the President of the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK) -- a loose, sometimes shakey alliance of his own supporters, another noncommunist faction, and the communist Khmer Rouge.

But the coalition desperately needs him. Although he has been in exile for most of the last 16 years, his popularity among Kampucheans still far exceeds any other leader in that country.

His brutal frankness sometimes deeply embarrasses his allies. During his recent five-day visit to Thailand, for example, he doled out barbs about both allies and enemies. He clearly stated that he still considers the Khmer Rouge to be a group of mass-murderers. He was pessimistic about the chances of the CGDK forcing the Vietnamese out of Kampuchea without major-power military intervention. For balance, he denounced the Vietnamese.

His comments on the Khmer Rouge were devastating. He recalled the early 1970s, when he was head of another government-in-exile that included the Khmer Rouge. ``They told me then they would kill just seven people when they won.'' Instead, he said, ``they killed a million in order to build socialism. Now they say they want to restore capitalism. I wonder how many people they will have to kill to do that.'' Members of Sihanouk's family were victimized by the Khmer Rouge.

Sihanouk was not born to rule. In 1941, at the age of 19, he was unexpectedly made king by the French colonial admininistration, apparently because he would be more pliable than other royal family members. He was not. He abdicated in 1955 and threw himself into politics. Until 1970 he kept his country out of the war that was destroying the rest of Indochina.

Sihanouk's popularity is shown in a conversation this correspondent had in 1982 with a Vietnamese adviser assigned to a remote Kampuchean village. He said Sihanouk was the biggest problem in propaganda work. The ploy Khmer Rouge guerrillas use works like this, he said: They come into the village, but they don't say they support Pol Pot, former leader of the Khmer Rouge. They say they are fighting to restore Sihanouk. That makes the local people happy. Then they have to reeducate the village.

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