IN Thailand, since February, a band of Cambodian monks have been allowed to preach Buddhist nonviolence and respect for human rights to a group of Khmer Rouge guerrillas. A dozen of the specially trained monks, conspicuous by their orange robes and shaven heads, have begun to teach Cambodia's dominant religion inside a refugee camp known as Site 8.
The camp - the largest controlled by the Khmer Rouge - is often used as a showcase to persuade outsiders that the guerrillas have changed since their violent rule of Cambodia. But an estimated 5,000 of the camp's 40,000 refugees are active fighters, often traveling into Cambodia.
``We train the people to monitor human rights, to respect the unity of the Buddhist community, and to achieve peace in Cambodia,'' says the venerable Maha Ghosananda, an elderly monk who leads the group. (Maha Ghosananda received an honorary degree May 21 from Providence College in Rhode Island for his peace efforts.)
The monks' entry into the midst of the notoriously violent Khmer Rouge represents just one of the latest attempts to end the long agony of Cambodia. Maha Gosananda has also been active at the highest levels of negotiations between the Cambodian factions.
As serious talks take place to resolve the problem politically, the the thorniest problem is how to militarily prevent any possible return of the Khmer Rouge.
During the 1975-79 reign of the Khmer Rouge, it is widely known that nearly all of Cambodia's estimated 80,000 to 100,000 monks either were killed or died of starvation. Any practice of religion was ruthlessly eradicated under the radical communism of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.
After the China-backed Khmer Rouge were ousted by Vietnamese troops in 1979, a new communist regime run by ex-Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese advisers allowed a limited return of Buddhism to Cambodia.
People were able to rebuild the destroyed or neglected temples. Officially, however, only men over 50 were permitted to become monks. And donations to the monks were often taken to pay for civic projects.
For the estimated 100,000 refugees controlled by the Khmer Rouge in Thailand, the practice of Buddhism has remained restricted. Along with their two weaker noncommunist partners, the Khmer Rouge have relied on refugees and foreign aid to wage a low-level guerrilla war against the Vietnamese occupation.
The United Nations has granted its Cambodia seat to the tripartite coalition of resistance forces, which is led by former ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk.
And up to now, Thailand has opposed Vietnam's occupation by cooperating closely with the Khmer Rouge in the delivery of weapons from China and in controlling refugees.
That arrangement, however, appears to be unraveling as Vietnam plans to withdraw its troops by the end of September. A new Thai government elected last year has sought to end the war, thus creating strains between the Thai military and the Khmer Rouge.
Thailand is preparing for an eventual conflict with the guerrillas when the time comes to stop them from threatening Cambodia. Many nations also are debating whether to send an armed international force into Cambodia to prevent the Khmer Rouge from returning to power. And the United States is considering sending ``lethal aid'' to the noncommunist factions.
But some Thai officials hope to partially pacify the Khmer Rouge by allowing monks to enter Site 8. In effect, the monks are offering a choice between guns and Buddha.
``We are an army of the Buddha,'' says Maha Ghosananda. Buddha, a prophet in India during the sixth century BC, taught a lifestyle of nonviolence based on limiting human desire.
``We are the gentle way,'' says Maha Ghosananda, who was once regarded as pro-Vietnamese by the Thai military. ``We have our own guns - truthfulness, forbearance, and gratitude. We shoot the people with these guns.
``We are not proclaiming a religion, but rather we use Cambodia's long tradition of reconciliation.''
His organization, called the Cambodian Mission for Peace, works out of a house in Bangkok, backed up by a worldwide network of Cambodians.
Last July and earler this month, he was active at peace talks in Indonesia between the four Cambodian factions. And he received endorsements from three of the factions, including the Hanoi-backed regime of Hun Sen in Cambodia. He claims some success in having Sihanouk and Hun Sen stop calling each other names. He has proposed compromises.
Last January, he visited Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, to make plans with leading monks there to promote peace after a settlement. In early May, the Hun Sen regime changed its Constitution to make Buddhism the state religion. And more and more young men can now easily join a monastery.
The fourth faction, the Khmer Rouge themselves, have not openly opposed the Buddhist work, although the monks report resistance from top Khmer Rouge leaders in Site 8. Earlier this month their nominal leader, Khieu Samphan, asked to meet with Maha Ghosananda. And a high-ranking Site 8 leader has reportedly asked to become a monk.
``Only Buddhism can heal the wounds of Cambodia,'' says Maha Ghosananda. ``We tell the Khmer Rouge not to kill and to learn the skills of peace. We know it is difficult. It's like trying to change the earth.
``But the young fighters now listen to us - and to their mothers. We are winning the people's will and making them more fearless to resist Khmer Rouge control.''
He says Pol Pot, who is widely believed to still control the Khmer Rouge, should not be punished.
``In Buddhism there is no sin. The first characteristic of life is change. Pol Pot can go back to Cambodia if he regrets his deeds and becomes a monk. Everything is mind-made. Let his own actions punish him.''
Why were the Khmer Rouge responsible for the deaths of an estimated 3 million Cambodians?
``Their teachers were outsiders - the Chinese communists,'' he says. ``Cambodians are a very innocent people, unaware of the outside world because of French colonialism.''
The monks say they are careful not to be used by any of the factional leaders. And they do not directly tell the leaders to reduce their desires for power.