WHILE attention is focused on the intricacies of the United Nations plan for Cambodia and the difficulties of getting the country's four competing factions to agree to it, the Khmer Rouge are quietly doing business on the Thai-Cambodian border. In the "liberated zones" they control in southwestern Cambodia, they are granting concessions and offering protection to Southeast Asian prospectors and businessmen, most of them from Thailand, who mine rubies and cut timber for lucrative international markets. The monthly intake of this trade for Pol Pot and his senior officers is estimated at a minimum of $5 million per month. Western analysts believe that their cash reserves exceed $100 million, held in a central fund that is surprisingly free of mid-level pilfering. After running on foreign assistance for more than a decade, the Khmer Rouge are approaching self-sufficiency.
Such economic power could undermine the West's most cherished assumptions about the Cambodian conflict. One tenet holds that it is possible to extinguish the Khmer Rouge threat by persuading China, its longstanding patron, to cut off economic assistance and arms. Estimates of Beijing's aid to the Khmer Rouge vary between $40 million and $80 million annually.
That assistance, however, is rapidly becoming moot. With the Khmer Rouge accumulating an independent income of $60 million per year or more, China's leverage is weakened with each new gem or logging deal.
Even if Beijing stops the flow of arms completely, Pol Pot's commanders in the field would still have an existing cache of weapons, now thought to equal a two-year supply, with which to continue the struggle. And should the Khmer Rouge comply with the terms of the UN plan and surrender those stores in the context of a cease-fire agreement, they would have the ready means to purchase new arms.
A more basic assumption in the West, however, is that the Khmer Rouge might prevail on the battlefield, but they could never win by the ballot box. The UN plan attempts to create a "level playing field," on which the factions submit to the will of the Cambodian people through an open and fair election. Behind that neutral construction, the West is wagering that the Khmer Rouge will be defeated at the polls.
But disproportionate wealth can be a telling factor in the electoral process. In established democracies, the balance is often tipped in favor of the candidate able to finance sweeping media campaigns. In poorer, developing countries with little democratic tradition, the most effective and expedient use of campaign funds can simply be to purchase votes. In the 1988 general elections in Cambodia's wealthier neighbor Thailand, when vote-buying was judged to be widespread, a ballot in the rural areas went for $2 on the average, and in Bangkok for $4. On that scale, the Khmer Rouge could "buy" Cambodia several times over.
Vote-buying seldom takes place at the polls. Funds are often channeled through middlemen like village leaders or factory bosses. An international team monitoring the Cambodian elections will find vote-buying far more difficult to detect than intimidation at the polls or tampering with ballot boxes.
If the Khmer Rouge are allowed to continue amassing such economic power, they could eclipse the UN plan while appearing to follow it scrupulously in form. Under this new threat, the international community needs to understand that the shelf life of the UN plan is measured in months rather than years.
Piecemeal proposals to stem the growing economic power of the Khmer Rouge have a fatal flaw. Any effort to move the UN position from that of a neutral mediator to an active crusader against the Khmer Rouge will be vetoed by China.
Nor is pressure on businessmen in the region to cease trading with the Khmer Rouge likely to be effective. In a climate of economic boom, the Southeast Asian private sector has taken an omnivorous approach to Cambodia. These businessmen are wont to maintain that they are pursuing an even-handed policy, in the spirit of the UN agreement.
Finally, the uncertainty of Cambodia's security and of its political future will make Western businesses reluctant to invest even a modest amount, much less enough to balance the books against the Khmer Rouge.
Much is made at present of the new economic vibrancy in Phnom Penh. Less attention is given, however, to the widening economic gap between the capital and the countryside, or to the growing perception in the rural areas of corruption among highly placed government officials.
It is questionable whether the benefits of foreign investment at this point would find their way to Cambodia's rural population. If they do not, the Hun Sen government could be ill-prepared to face a political challenge from the Khmer Rouge. Indeed, at the heart of Pol Pot's new "hearts and minds" campaign in the interior is an emphasis on Phnom Penh's unabashed spoils system, in contrast to the economic discipline of the Khmer Rouge.
The Hun Sen government is reluctant to give up power under a UN arrangement, and the prognosis for the plan is wobbly at best. But it constitutes the best hope of dismantling the Khmer Rouge economic apparatus in the liberated zones, since the UN would assume control of the financial affairs of the country for the interim period between a cease-fire and elections.
The West should use whatever influence it has on Phnom Penh to underscore that fact. By surrendering some degree of power now, the present leadership of Cambodia may find that it is preserving its best chance to compete for influence in the future.