The Cambodian (Kampuchean) conflict seems to have boiled down to war between two old adversaries, the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese. Vietnam controls Cambodia's communist government and wants to bring its neighbor into an all-Indochina alliance intended to bring the region under Vietnamese control. The Khmer Rouge, the 28-year-old communist guerrilla movement, is the largest of the three factions in the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, Cambodia's opposition movement.
Although all three factions were badly hobbled earlier this year by a major Vietnamese offensive, the Khmer Rouge's determined, experienced leadership makes it the only faction still capable of presenting a threat to the Vietnamese.
By contrast, the two noncommunist factions led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Son Sann came into being only a few years ago, forced unwillingly in 1982 by their Western backers and China to join up with the Khmer Rouge.
Now the larger of the two noncommunist factions, the Khmer People's National Liberation Front led by Son Sann, is paralyzed by internal quarrels.
Western observers in Bangkok say that the continued failure of the noncommunist coalition factions to develop militarily or to resolve their political differences is a disappointment to the coalition's main backers -- the United States and its noncommunist allies in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). If the situation persists, it could become a major embarrassment. The US and ASEAN want to check Vietnam's consolidation of Cambodia, but they do not want to be seen as supporting the Khmer
Rouge. Between 1975 and 1978, when the Khmer Rouge was in power, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died through starvation or execution.
When the coalition was founded its Western backers hoped the two noncommunist factions would unite to form a political and military force that would eclipse the Khmer Rouge. But the latest split inside the coalition -- this one within Son Sann's faction itself -- even further dashes the hopes of its Western supporters.
The long-smoldering quarrel flared up in late August -- just a few weeks after the US government decided in principle to give the noncommunist factions $5 million in direct financial aid. It would be the first overt US assistance to the coalition. There are strong signs, however, that the US has been providing covert aid worth several million dollars annually since 1983.
The split has lined up some of the front's senior leaders against the its founder, Son Sann, a former Cambodian premier. The dissidents claim that Son Sann and his partisans are blocking efforts at closer unity with the Sihanoukists, while Son Sann's supporters say the issue is purely a question of discipline.
There is considerable tension inside the front, foreign observers and front dissidents say. Diplomatic sources say that all except about 1,000 of the faction's 14,000 guerrillas are being held close to the border ``in case they're needed for a face off'' between the two noncommunist factions, as one observer puts it. A senior front dissident describes the atmosphere among the faction's guerrilla forces as ``potentially explosive,'' but says that the dissidents control most of the troops.
The number of front guerrillas seems to have declined by about 2,000 since the Vietnamese offensive earlier this year. Western sources say that most of the dropouts have slipped back into civilian life. But some have turned to banditry, and there are reports that the faction has been asked to help the Thai military in operations against bandits.
The present split within the faction underscores two important problems for the coalition: the continuing lack of noncommunist unity and the ambivalent behind-the-scenes relationship between Thailand and some coalition leaders.
Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann have two things in common. First, they hate the Khmer Rouge and they want Vietnam out of Cambodia (although Prince Sihanouk openly doubts this is possible without Western or Chinese military intervention). Second, the two men have spent much of their adult lives at loggerheads and seem to make little effort to hide their mutual animosity.
Dissidents in Son Sann's faction, who want much closer cooperation with the Sihanoukists, indicate that they would be happy to see Son Sann resign. They also say they would like ASEAN to tell Son Sann firmly to stop the internal quarrels and get on with the war. This is anathema to other front leaders, who are deeply suspicious of ``foreign interference'' -- especially by Thailand -- in the faction's affairs.
Some front officials regularly complain that material aid sent to the front does not go directly to it but is handed over to the Thais, who then distribute it when they feel it is needed.
``When we want to go on an operation,'' said a front official, ``we have to submit an operation plan to the Thais, saying how much weaponry we need. The Thais consider this, and, if they approve, release the supplies to us.'' The delay, the official claimed, can take days and has affected the faction's military operations.
Meanwhile, the Sihanoukists are launching small operations in northern Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge is active on a larger scale in most parts of the country. Phnom Penh's reports indicate that the Khmer Rouge is operating in most parts of the north and in provinces on both sides of the Tonle Sap, or ``Great Lake.'' But despite promises to its Chinese supporters, the Khmer Rouge has been unable to make any impact this year on the area around Phnom Penh.
Even if the rest of the coalition did wither away, the Khmer Rouge would probably continue to fight. Its top leaders lived in the jungle for eight years with almost no outside help. But even they are showing no signs of being a major threat to the Phnom Penh government or to Vietnam's plans for the future of Indochina. Second of a series.