Two weeks before informal Cambodian peace talks are to begin, the West and its Southeast Asian allies are weighing steps to curb their strongest military pressure on Vietnam's troops in Cambodia: the Khmer Rouge. ``By ... developing effective measures to ensure that the Khmer Rouge can never come back [to power], we remove Hanoi's main pretext for remaining in Cambodia,'' US Secretary of State George Shultz said yesterday.
But the US and its allies face a dilemma of how far they can weaken the Khmer Rouge, either politically or militarily, without first having a settlement on Cambodia. Until they see how much Vietnam is willing to compromise at peace talks planned for July 25 in Indonesia, Western officials say they will only prepare initial measures to curtail the Khmer Rouge, the strongest force in the tripartite Cambodian resistance coalition.
Just the same, Western nations are pressing for changes in the Cambodia policies of China and Thailand, the two countries most directly responsible for helping the Khmer Rouge maintain its estimated 35,000 guerrillas, who operate from the Thai border.
``Some quarters, particularly in the West, want to ensure that the emerging new Kampuchea [Cambodia] would never again revert to the tragic condition of the past,'' Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila said yesterday. ``We feel that such apprehension is legitimate and deserves our serious attention,'' he added. The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia for nearly five years, causing the death of more than an estimated 1 million people, before it was ousted by Vietnam in 1979.
On July 4, Thai Premier Prem Tinsulanonda proposed that a final settlement include agreement on ``noninterference'' in Cambodia's internal affairs and invited Vietnam to sign a regional security treaty. His proposal, Thai analysts say, is designed to offer constraints on Khmer Rouge activities in Thailand in return for Vietnam agreeing not to reinvade Cambodia after a promised 1990 pullout.
The Thais could restrain the flow of Chinese weapons to the Khmer Rouge, disassemble the refugee camps where an estimated 70,000 civilians support Khmer Rouge fighters, and possibly prevent Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and his associates from operating in Thailand.
But to take such steps now might split up the Khmer Rouge or jeopardize it as a fighting force prematurely, US officials warn. Such steps are being saved for later negotiations with Vietnam.
But even if arms, money, and Thai sanctuary were denied, Western officials say, the Khmer Rouge might be able to fight on for one or two years. It is believed to have stockpiled arms and have begun to infiltrate villages in Cambodia.
On July 1, China proposed a ``freeze'' on all military forces in Cambodia, to come only after an internationally supervised withdrawal of Vietnamese troops and after the setting up of a provisional Cambodian government.
This move follows other recent shifts in China's support for the Khmer Rouge but these fall short of a more widely accepted proposal to place an international peacekeeping force in Cambodia.
That idea received strong endorsement at this week's meeting here of ASEAN, the Association of South East Asian Nations, which includes Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Such an international force, say ASEAN officials, would prevent Khmer Rouge dominance, though they do not rule out a Khmer Rouge role in a compromise government.
Japan, seeking wider influence in the region, offered this week to pay for an international force.
Another way to curb the Khmer Rouge is for ASEAN to push former Cambodian ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk as leader of a compromise government. He heads the resistance coalition, formed in 1982 in an awkward alliance with the Khmer Rouge to fight the Vietnamese occupation and will lead this month's talks with Hanoi-backed Cambodian leader Hun Sen.