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Cambodian Prince Visits L.B. : Seeks Support for Rebel Effort

April 07, 1985|ERIC BAILEY | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Outfitted in a trendy, olive-green windbreaker and blue slacks, Prince Norodom Ranariddh of Cambodia sat in the hotel lobby thumbing through a newspaper, looking more the tourist than a rebel leader.

"You can mention maybe that this is our guerrilla uniform," he said, adjusting the jacket. With that, the 41-year-old prince let out a hearty laugh.

For Ranariddh, who is visiting Long Beach and other American cities to drum up support for the Cambodian resistance movement, the joke was in sharp counterpoint to news from his homeland.

The long-shot military effort by Cambodian rebels to topple the Vietnam-backed regime in Phnom Penh has foundered badly in recent weeks. Earlier this year, Vietnamese troops launched a dry-season offensive, destroying several key rebel bases and driving thousands of fighters back into neighboring Thailand.

Among those were members of the group headed by Ranariddh's father, erstwhile Cambodian ruler Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Their organization--The National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia--is one of three factions that have formed an uneasy alliance to battle the Vietnamese.

Prince Ranariddh, a diminutive, round-faced man with raven-colored hair flecked with gray, said his mission in the United States is twofold: to discuss the rebel situation with federal officials in Washington in the next week and to address the thousands of Cambodians who have settled in the United States.

Ranariddh said he plans to meet with Cambodians in San Francisco, Oakland and Chicago before going to Washington to meet Wednesday with Secretary of State George Shultz.

In Long Beach, which has been the hub in the United States for support of the resistance movement, the prince spoke before several gatherings of up to 200 refugees. There are more than 25,000 Cambodian refugees in Long Beach and surrounding cities, and some have actively backed the rebels, sending money, medicine, even manpower.

"I think the Cambodians living in America, all of them, are very, very concerned," the prince said. "They represent the human potential for Cambodia when we have to rebuild our country."

Ranariddh insisted his U.S. visit is not an effort to recruit more soldiers for the resistance forces. The rebels do not need foot soldiers, he said. In fact, there are more in Cambodia than can be armed and fed.

"When the time comes, I think we can recruit many, many inside Cambodia," Ranariddh said. "The Cambodian people are now against the Vietnamese occupation."

Economic Support Needed

More important to the rebel effort, Ranariddh said, is military and economic support. Since Prince Sihanouk formed his rebel faction in 1980, the group has obtained most of it military hardware from China. But Ranariddh said he is eager to see the United States, which has supported the rebels diplomatically and provided military intelligence information, throw its economic support behind the movement.

"We of Cambodia, we never ask your great country to send to our jungles your sons," the prince said. "We are very grateful to the United States to be so supportive of us diplomatically. Of course, we hope more effective assistance comes one day in the form of money."

Congressional leaders are considering such support, despite objections from the Reagan Administration and warnings against new military involvement in Southeast Asia. Last Wednesday, a House committee voted to funnel $5 million in military assistance through Thailand to non-communist resistance forces.

Ranariddh said he is pleased by the vote but does not plan to pressure the Reagan Administration for military aid when he meets with Shultz. Although Reagan has been sympathetic to the rebels' cause, Ranariddh said he feels the president is reluctant to offer economic support because of lingering memories of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

"I will not embarrass the Reagan Administration by asking for more aid," the prince said. "My father, Prince Sihanouk, advised me not to ask for any aid."

Even without U.S. assistance, Ranariddh said the rebel campaign has a chance.

Main Objective Cited

"I think we can create more and more difficulties for the Vietnamese," he said. "Our main objective consists of one day not so far off bringing the Vietnamese around the table of negotiation and letting them know very clearly that they cannot occupy our Cambodia."

Despite the recent Vietnamese offensive, Ranariddh claimed the rebels have hundreds of guerrilla fighters inside enemy-occupied territory "deep inside" Cambodia. Those fighters have gotten "very good results" conducting surprise raids on military installations and recently destroyed an ammunition depot near the city of Samrong, he maintained.

The offensive, meanwhile, was more a public relations victory for the occupying forces than a crippling defeat for the ragtag rebel fighters, the prince said.

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