At an anti-Vietnamese resistance base camp deep in Cambodia's province of Battambang, 25-year-old Khmer People's National Liberation Front commando officer Soun Sammang recently shared a bench with this correspondent. Our conversation centered on the sorry history of Cambodia and its people, the Khmers. During the course of the talk I mentioned the film ``The Killing Fields'' - a British production of a couple of years back that focused on the relationship between two journalists in war-torn Cambodia set against a backdrop of horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge.
Under the leadership of a shadowy figure named Saloth Sar (better known by his nom de guerre of Pol Pot), the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Their ruthless blend of communism and nationalism resulted in the deaths of at least hundreds of thousands of people. Some estimates put the figure at 2 million.
Samnang was a 15-year-old student when the Khmer Rouge took power. He survived four years of slave labor before escaping to Thailand. To my surprise, he had seen the ``The Killing Fields.''
``The reality was worse,'' he said in self-taught English. ``It was much worse.''
That comment, together with Samnang's explanation and what I already knew, were not reassuring. It had become clear during the trip that our safety, and perhaps our lives, depended on the Khmer Rouge.
I had come into Cambodia with an Australian colleague about two weeks earlier to report on the guerrilla war, now nearing the end of its eighth year.
A company of 107 soldiers of the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) acted as host and escort. The KPNLF, one of three factions in Cambodia's anti-Vietnamese resistance, hoped thereby to focus international attention on Cambodia and show its effectiveness as a guerrilla force deep in the country.
The Cambodian conflict pits the occupying Vietnamese Army and the Phnom Penh troops under its tutelage against a loose partnership of the communist Khmer Rouge, the KPNLF, and the noncommunist faction led by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. That partnership, known as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea, is recognized by the UN as Cambodia's legitimate government.
On the third day of our trip, Australian journalist David Nason was wounded during a KPNLF engagement with Vietnamese troops. One KPNLF soldier was killed, three wounded, and one captured.
Worried about Mr. Nason, the KPNLF scrapped its planned operation and prepared to evacuate us to Thailand. But the Vietnamese learned of the Western reporters' presence from the captive and mounted a search-and-destroy action.
According to intelligence reports, the Vietnamese increased troop strength along Highway 5, which cut across our escape route, from 500 to 1,500. In addition, they mobilized local militia forces, laid ambushes north of the highway along the approach to Thailand, and sent scouting units south. Villagers were offered a reward of 5,000 rials (about $40, or a year's salary for the average Khmer villager) for information about us.
Our KPNLF unit contacted its Khmer Rouge allies in the region, seeking Nason's admission to the Khmer Rouge field hospital. The request was denied. So was our appeal to return to the border along a quicker and safer route controlled by the Khmer Rouge, whose commander said he needed authorization from his superiors, who rarely allow contact with Westerners.
The response suggested we would be attacked by the Khmer Rouge if we stepped on their turf without permission. Some hard-line Khmer Rouge field commanders do not recognize the resistance coalition and view all outsiders as enemies; others have appeared to be cooperative.
Increasing Vietnamese activity prompted the KPNLF to try again, with the aim of bypassing enemy concentrations by returning to Thailand west through Khmer Rouge territory. To that end, the KPNLF leadership in Thailand started negotiations with the Khmer Rouge leadership there.
It took two or three days of talks before an agreement was reached. Inexplicably (since there were radio links), another two or three days passed before word filtered down to the Khmer Rouge field commander.
The Khmer Rouge have recently made efforts to erase memories of their odious past and to project a moderate image within Cambodia and abroad. For instance, they frown on the name Khmer Rouge and insist on ``National Army of Democratic Kampuchea.'' To Western skepticism, the Khmer Rouge claim to have disavowed communism and to have accepted Pol Pot's retirement. He is now simply an ``adviser,'' they claim.
Perhaps more substantive are their renewed efforts to win the support of Khmer villagers through propaganda and programs, such as one aimed at marrying off Khmer Rouge soldiers to local women. They have also tried to improve cooperation in the field with their noncommunist coalition partners, though hard-liners have resisted this.
Our predicament no doubt gave the Khmer Rouge an ideal propaganda vehicle for showing a more moderate face. The Khmer Rouge we met seemed to go out of their way to be friendly and helpful. They seemed to be dedicated, professional soldiers, and ardent nationalists. We spent eight days with the Khmer Rouge. Few Westerners have had a similar opportunity to observe their military technique and demeanor. They seemed well-equipped and disciplined. Some sported Buddhist charms, possibly a sign that the leadership is softening its stand against religious worship. They were confident, neat, and often cheerful.
They had a doctor waiting to treat Nason on our arrival at the mobile headquarters of their 450th Division. A 30-man escort was assigned to guide our party to the Thai border. When a Vietnamese patrol thwarted our first attempt at crossing, and we subsequently ran short of food, a 91-man transport unit was sent to resupply us. A couple of days later our combined force of roughly 160 KPNLF troops and 120 Khmer Rouge reached safety.
Given the suspicion with which the Khmer Rouge are known to regard all non-Khmer Rouge, it was surprising that KPNLF and Khmer Rouge soldiers appeared comfortable with each other and that villagers encountered along our route seemed at ease in the presence of both.