Guerrillas Fade Into the Mist

Apparent end of Khmer Rouge struggle marks a decline in world insurgencies

Pol Pot, one of the world's most notorious guerrilla leaders, appears to be near the end of a long struggle to retake the country he once ruled through mass murder and fanatical Maoism.

After allegedly killing a key aide, the Khmer Rouge chief and a small band of loyalists have reportedly fled their stronghold in Cambodia. Their whereabouts are in dispute, but whatever the outcome, his downfall marks the passing of yet another cold-war-era guerrilla movement.

Many insurgencies that once fought dictators and capitalism have lost their way as democracy and open markets have won the day. In some areas, the voids left by the end of these insurgencies have been filled by new groups, such as Islamic Jihad in the Mideast. Unlike their cold-war antecedents, they are too small to engage in battles or capture territory. Instead, like the Irish Republican Army, they rely on terrorism to pursue their agendas.

Most are not so much driven by ideology as by actual or perceived religion- or ethnic-based persecution. Members of some of these groups belonged to guerrilla organizations during the cold war simply to win big-power support.

"It would be very naive to think that the end of the cold war is going to bring an end to these problems," says Anthony Joes, an international relations professor at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, and the author of three books on the history of guerrilla warfare.

In a few countries, however, classic guerrilla movements persist. They include the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are fighting a war for a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil minority in the northern and eastern parts of the country, and Kurdish rebels fighting for autonomy in Turkey and Iraq.

In other countries, the emergence of new armed groups seeking rights for indigenous peoples underscores the persistence of economic and social disparities that fueled the leftist insurgencies of the past.

Such is the case with Mexico, where frustrations among the peasantry erupted in the January 1996 insurrection in southern Chiapas State by the Zapatista National Liberation Army. While the Zapatistas are now committed to a political settlement, a new guerrilla movement, the Popular Revolutionary Army, has emerged in southwestern Guerrero State. It has killed at least 17 people in small-scale attacks on military, police, and government facilities.

For now, though, the downfall of Pol Pot continues a trend that has seen the end of classic guerrilla movements from Guatemala and El Salvador, to Mozambique and Namibia.

Deprived of the cash, arms, and training supplied by the United States, the former Soviet Union, China, Cuba, or other backers, cold-war-era guerrillas have had to choose among new methods of supporting themselves and seeking accommodations with the systems they sought to overthrow.

"There is a tremendous change in the international guerrilla movement," says Amos Perlmutter, an international relations professor at George Washington University in Washington. "The most important factor is that they no longer have money from any great power. Second, the causes of guerrilla movements are losing their purposes in an era in which the great powers are no longer interested [in them] and in an international system that is stressing conflict resolution."

Some movements, like the Shining Path in Peru and the Revolutionary Armed Forces in Colombia, chose to fight on. They rely today on drug smuggling, robberies, extortion, kidnapping, and other illicit acts for survival. They have also modernized their methods, establishing Internet sites that continue to extol their struggles "against the terror of the state."

An Internet site maintained by the Tpac Amaru, the Peruvian group that held 72 hostages for 126 days in the Japanese ambassador's home until their rescue by troops in April, offers communiques, news reports, and links to sites of other longtime insurgent organizations. These include Peru's Shining Path, the remnants of the New People's Army in the Philippines, Turkey's Kurdish rebels, and the LTTE.

A few cold-war-era guerrillas are still receiving foreign backing. Afghan opposition forces, armed by the US during the 1979-89 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, are reportedly receiving help from Iran and other neighboring states in their battle against the Taliban, the hard-line Pakistani-backed Islamic movement that has taken control of most of the country.

Other cold-war-era groups, like Nicaragua's Contras and other Latin American rebels, saw no other option after their foreign backing ended than to make peace and work for change through legitimate politics. The latest group to choose this path is the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity. The Marxist guerrillas signed a peace accord last December that ended a 36-year civil war that claimed an estimated 140,000 lives.

Other veteran revolutionaries have remained wedded to armed struggle, but abandoned their leftist origins. Such is the case of Congo President Kabila, a one-time comrade of the famed Marxist guerrilla leader, Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Mr. Kabila aggressively sought private Western investors in his country's mining industry even before his guerrillas toppled dictator Mobutu Sese Seko last month.

In Pol Pot's case, it was the gradual defections to the government over the past year by members of his inner circle and thousands of his troops that triggered the turmoil that led to his downfall.

Pol Pot, born Saloth Sar in May 1928, was educated in Paris, where he became steeped in Marxism. Returning to Cambodia, he joined the Communist Party and led a peasant army to power over the US-backed regime of Lon Nol in 1975.

He then launched a campaign to convert the country into a utopian agrarian society, driving urban populations into rural work camps, abolishing education, and razing factories. The deaths of an estimated 1 million people were linked to wanton slayings, starvation, disease, or overwork in what became known as "the killing fields."

Pol Pot was driven into the jungles in 1978 by Vietnamese troops that invaded Cambodia to put an end to the Khmer Rouge's four-year reign of murder and mayhem. He refused to participate in elections that followed a 1991 UN-brokered peace deal that brought to power an uneasy coalition between Hanoi-installed Prime Minister Hun Sen (a Khmer Rouge defector) and Prince Norodom Ranariddh (son of King Norodom Sihanouk).

The Khmer Rouge continued to fight in the jungle border areas near Thailand and Laos, but began defecting last year as part of a power struggle between Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Guerrillas Fade Into the Mist
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today