Ethnic Vietnamese Flee Cambodia, But a Wary Hanoi Mutes Protest

The Khmer Rouge's `ethnic cleansing' is seen as provocation

REPEATED massacres of Vietnamese in Cambodia and the resulting flood of refugees down the Mekong River have sent chilling reminders to Hanoi that it is more than an innocent bystander in the election campaign now under way in the country that its troops occupied only recently.

An estimated 25,000 to 40,000 Vietnamese refugees have so far crossed into southern Vietnam in the past month, most of them on small wooden houseboats, bearing reports of vicious attacks on their relatives, apparently by Khmer Rouge guerrillas.

Hanoi officials worry that another 100,000 ethnic Vietnamese might exit Cambodia soon if coming weeks bring more attacks in what appears to be a limited "ethnic cleansing" of a minority widely disliked by Cambodians.

Vietnam is so sensitive to not becoming an unwilling participant in the May 23-27 elections in Cambodia that it has not asked for international aid to help the refugees, nor will it allow reporters to see the exodus in the border provinces of An Giang and Dong Thap.

Hanoi wants the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), whose 20,000-troop presence is needed to hold the election, to take the refugees back into Cambodia as soon as possible. In the meantime, Vietnam is providing minimal food and housing for the refugees, many of whom are fishermen from the Tonle Sap lake in northwest Cambodia.

"The Khmer Rouge strategy is to drive out all the Vietnamese," says Tran Cong Man, a Hanoi spokesman. "They will continue their elimination policy unless the UN acts."

International aid workers say Hanoi wants to minimize the massacres and the refugee flow to avoid playing into the hands of the Khmer Rouge, which may seek confrontation with Vietnam as a way to bolster its weak standing among Cambodians. The Maoist group is responsible for killing more than 1 million Cambodians during the 1970s.

"Vietnam doesn't want to make an issue of this exodus, because it might just encourage the Khmer Rouge to kill more," says an International Red Cross worker. Without Hanoi's approval, the Red Cross has appealed for $280,000 to aid the refugees.

At least 50 ethnic Vietnamese have been reported killed since early March, but Mr. Man says the figure is much higher. In early April Hanoi sent a stern message that Vietnamese residents must be protected to UNTAC officials, Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and even the government leaders whom Vietnam installed in 1980 after it ousted the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge, forced into the jungle in 1979, has retained influence among Cambodians by playing off historic animosity toward the Vietnamese.

Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia in 1979 was triggered by repeated border attacks by the pro-Beijing Khmer Rouge in 1977 and 1978 and Hanoi's fears that its historic enemy, China, was creating a puppet state on Vietnam's southern flank. It claims to have withdrawn all its troops in 1989, but it left behind a guerrilla war.

Vietnam's other concern is that the post-election situation will be unstable, allowing the Khmer Rouge more room for guerrilla warfare and attacks on ethnic Vietnamese.

Hanoi claims only 200,000 Vietnamese live in Cambodia, and about half are considered Cambodians because they have lived there for generations. The Khmer Rouge says the number is closer to 1 million. Foreign officials estimate the Vietnamese population at 300,000 to 500,000.

"The presence of Vietnamese in Cambodia is only a pretext for the Khmer Rouge to undermine the election," says Foreign Ministry official Ha Huy Thong in Hanoi.

The UN-sponsored elections in Cambodia have put Hanoi in a double bind. A fair vote could hurt the Khmer Rouge. But the example of a multiparty democracy on their border might erode the strength of Communist one-party rule in Vietnam.

"Everyone is waiting on the Cambodia elections," says a United States intelligence official. "The Cambodian elections will be held up as an example of either a failure or a success of multiparty elections. If it is success, Hanoi may be in a difficult situation with its own people."

Hanoi's response is that "multipartyism" in Vietnam would be unstable. "The Vietnamese right now want to live in peace," Mr. Thong says. "They just want to be able to eat, build homes, and send their children to school. Very few people ask, `Why don't we try democracy?' If the Cambodians want elections, fine. We don't want to see Cambodia as an ally. We want it to be a sovereign and nonaligned nation that will not pose a threat."

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