ONE year after it appeared that an election had ended 25 years of war and tragedy in Cambodia, fresh assaults by Khmer Rouge guerrillas have led the government in Phnom Penh to request military aid from the United States.
The possibility of the US intervening once again with arms in an Indochina nation comes with some historic irony. The US sent troops and aircraft into Cambodia to fight North Vietnamese from 1970 until the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975 and began their genocidal, ultracommunist rule that left up to a million Cambodians dead.
But these days Cambodia, of all the national conflicts ignited by the cold war, is widely seen as the most succeessful example of international intervention to restore a country's unity and independence.
King Norodom Sihanouk, who was restored as Cambodia's head of state last year, told reporters this month that US military aid was needed to block a return to power by the Khmer Rouge. The guerrilla group boycotted last May's elections and still controls about 10 percent of the land and 5 percent of the people, mainly along the border with Thailand.
Marvin Ott, a professor with the National War College in Washington who was in Phnom Penh this month, says that the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) are ``undisciplined, untrained, and unequipped'' to fight the Khmer Rouge.
``I was in a meeting around May 4 at which the Cambodian foreign minister told the US ambassador, Charlie Twining, `we need military assistance, lethal aid, equipment, and training.' It was the first time the Cambodians have asked for it.''
A high-level official in the Clinton administration said the US was considering the request and would run it by the other nations who brokered a 1991 peace accord that led to the reconciliation of three Cambodian factions. The other nations include the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council as well as Japan and Australia.
``The question is: Do all of us agree that we should provide lethal assistance; and who provides what?'' the official asks.
He said that the US might provide aid to the RCAF, even though it includes troops of the ex-communist government that was installed by Vietnam after it invaded Cambodia in 1978 and ousted the Khmer Rouge. For a decade, the US backed the noncommunist guerrillas of Sihanouk and another group in fighting the Vietnam-backed regime in Phnom Penh. That regime had been headed by a former Khmer Rouge fighter, Hun Sen, who now co-leads the coalition government.
``We were at odds with Hun Sen in the context of him being the head of a government installed by force,'' the US official says. ``But now he is part of a government installed by election.''
Hun Sen is ``second prime minister'' while Prince Norodom Rannaridh, son of the king, is ``first prime minister'' in the elected government. (Many government positions were given dual leadership in a post-election compromise.) The RCAF includes troops from both men's former forces along with the second anticommunist group, the Khmer People's National Liberation Front. Mr. Ott said the troops get along well now that they are part of a unified force.
But the estimated 7,000 Khmer Rouge fighters are better organized and are believed to have ready access to weapons and supplies in Thailand that they buy with income from gem and timber production. Thailand, a US ally and trading partner, insists it gives no official help or sanctuary to the Khmer Rouge.
Ott says that since the Khmer Rouge control a large part of the Thai-Cambodian border, ``they are a factor the Thais must live with.'' In addition, the Khmer Rouge, are ``good neighbors to the Thais - they control their own people and don't kill or rob the Thais. This contrasts with the RCAF, which resorts to banditry and theft.''
Ott said that when the RCAF briefly seized the Khmer Rouge base in Pailin recently, officers were too busy looting to evacuate their own wounded troops.
Some 68 percent of the Cambodian Army are generals and other officers according to Raoul Jennar, a consultant to the NGO Forum on Cambodia in Phnom Penh. In the April edition of his ``Cambodian Chronicles'' publication, Mr. Jennar wrote that corrupt officers bought promotions to the rank of general for about $1,400.
The US and other observers are pleased that Hun Sen and Prince Rannaridh, despite being former enemies, are cooperating in a coalition government. But Jennar, Ott, and others say that below the top level, the Army and bureaucracy are ineffective.
The Khmer Rouge launched attacks this month in areas near Sisophon, an important regional city on the main road from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, and the northwestern city of Battambang. Ott says it is unlikely they have resources to capture the whole country. The US provided $135 million in humanitarian and development aid in 1993 in addition to $517 million for the UN peace process, said Peter Tomsen, deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Testifying before Congress on May 11 Mr. Tomsen said that ``to help the RCG [Royal Cambodian Government] deal with the [Khmer Rouge] threat'' the US Department of Defense had delivered $900,000 worth of medical supplies, hand tools, sleeping mats, and mosquito nets; and is starting an English-language training program for officers.