THE discovery earlier this month of a huge Thai military arsenal of weapons and ammunition apparently meant for a rebel group in Cambodia highlights the continuing military challenge that faces the new, and still unsettled, Cambodian government.
It also focuses a bright international spotlight on the role the Thai Army apparently continues to play as the critical economic and military umbilical cord sustaining the Maoist Khmer Rouge guerrilla group, which ruled Cambodia under a reign of terror between 1975 and 1979.
The arms cache has aggravated relations between Thailand and Cambodia and comes just as the Phnom Penh government is trying to step up military pressure on the Khmer Rouge.
The 1,500-ton arms cache was discovered aboard a truck convoy near the Cambodian border on Dec. 7. Those arrested included a Thai Army special forces master sergeant and a Cambodian, who identified himself as ``Comrade Rit'' and volunteered that they were headed across the Thai border for Pailin, the Khmer Rouge headquarters.
Later that day, reporters accompanied Thailand's national police chief to a former rubber plantation near the border, where they found 12 large warehouses brimming with weapons.
``From our point of view this is big news and the key question for us is how long has this [arms deliveries] been going on and how much has actually been delivered to the KR [Khmer Rouge],'' says a Bangkok-based Western military analyst.
Despite periodic reports of arms supplies crossing the Thai-Cambodia border, there had been no real concrete evidence and most analysts had felt that supplies, at least on any significant scale, had basically dried up since the beginning of 1993. Now military analysts are uncertain as to the quantity and quality of arms moving across the border.
``Any movement of the arms [without authorization] is illegal,'' said Thai Army commander Gen. Wimol Wongwanich, announcing an investigation into the smuggling incident.
Most military analysts tend to think the smuggling is conducted by a renegade special forces unit, although it is unclear how high in the officer corps the racket reaches.
``We think that Wimol is sincere [in severing ties with the Khmer Rouge], but the question is, how solid is his reach out on the borders,'' one Western intelligence source explains.
Border field commanders were recently rotated by General Wimol, but analysts say this incident suggests that tougher directives will be needed to break up the cross-border relationship.
Thai authorities have tried to put a positive spin on the unfolding events. They praised the performance of the police (who would normally have stayed clear of Army ``turf,'' including border areas), suggesting that their actions proved that Bangkok was abiding by its obligations as a signatory to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords - which formally ended the Cambodian conflict - to desist from supplying weapons to any side.
But clearly the exposure touched a nerve in officialdom. ``The persons who say the weapons are connected to the Khmer Rouge or [that] they are available to support the Khmer Rouge are not patriotic,'' said National Security Council Chief Gen. Charan Kullavanijaya. Thailand channels arms
During the 13-year-long struggle to overthrow the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh, Thailand served as the command base and a principal conduit of arms for the three Cambodian ``resistance'' factions, which included two rebel forces supported by the West and the Khmer Rouge, which was backed by China. As part of the peace accord, the various factions agreed to stop fighting and participate in United Nations-sponsored elections for a new national government. Other countries, including Thailand and China, agreed not to provide arms to former combatants. The Khmer Rouge, however, boycotted the vote and has refused to lay down its arms.
Doubts have lingered about how resolutely the Thai military was winding down its relations with the Khmer Rouge. Suspicions have persisted because of lucrative timber or gem concessions granted to Thai companies by the Khmer Rouge in their territory, which are widely believed to have benefited the Thai military through shareholdings or informal ``customs duties.''
In numerous reports, the UN operation in Cambodia documented a strikingly cordial relationship at the field level between Khmer Rouge cadres and Thai military officers.
Cambodian officials, meanwhile, are interested in getting their hands on the weapons. But the Thai Army clearly wants to keep the arms. In a compromise, the Thai government have offered the weapons to their ``original owners'' - mostly China - but only if requested.
``According to my personal opinion, Thailand has to give those arms to the Cambodian government,'' said Ieng Mouly, the Cambodian information minister. ``But Cambodia is not the owner of the weapons,'' Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai responded. China remains silent
Not surprisingly, Beijing has maintained a studious silence, perhaps preferring not to remind the world it was the Khmer Rouge's principal patron. ``I have not yet received instructions from my government,'' said a military attache at the Chinese Embassy here when queried.
Despite the recalcitrance of the Khmer Rouge, officials in the Cambodian government of Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh continue their efforts to draw the rebel group out of the jungle and into some limited governance role, and to neutralize its military threat by integrating an estimated 10,000 fighters into the new national Army.
Meanwhile, the Cambodian government has recently stepped up its military operations against the Khmer Rouge in what many see as muscle-flexing for better negotiating leverage.
On Dec. 25, Premier Ranariddh said that he would propose constitutional amendments to allow the Khmer Rouge to have co-ministerial level positions in the government if the insurgents cease all military hostilities, open up their zones of control, and demobilize their troops.
In the past, Ranariddh has only been prepared to offer sub-ministerial positions to second-tier-level Khmer Rouge officials.
But Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan has warned that Cambodia's peace process is doomed if any preconditions are attached. The Khmer Rouge is blamed for the deaths of 1 million Cambodians during its three-year reign.