BANGKOK, THAILAND — The conflict in Cambodia is following the cyclical pattern of the past five years. The heavy fighting of the dry season is drawing to a close, and a gale of rhetoric is sweeping in.
This year the Vietnamese are pushing hard on the peace line, capitalizing on the thrashing their forces gave the Cambodian resistance along the Thai border.
The resistance, more chastened than in the last few years, talks of fighting on, looking past some obvious cracks in its political coalition.
The outside players in the conflict--China, the Soviet Union, the non-communist Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and, to a lesser degree, the United States--are maintaining various heights of diplomatic posture.
A political settlement is unlikely for now, and the seasons of fighting and talking seem certain to culminate in the annual fall phase of the cycle: the decision as to who gets the Cambodian seat at the United Nations, one that the Vietnamese and the government they installed in Phnom Penh have lost by increasing margins in General Assembly votes.
The twist in this year's struggle has been the direct appeal by ASEAN and the Cambodian resistance for U.S. military aid.
"While we would never dream of defeating Vietnam militarily. . . , we need nevertheless the means to pressure it to the negotiating table," resistance leader Son Sann told reporters in Washington this month.
Son Sann, prime minister of Cambodia before the communist takeover 10 years ago last week, heads the Khmer People's National Liberation Front, one of three resistance groups joined in a loose coalition. The others are forces led by former Cambodian leader Prince Norodom Sihanouk, nominal head of a coalition, and the Khmer Rouge, whose ruthless communist regime ruled Cambodia until ousted by the Vietnamese five years ago.
In appealing for U.S. military aid for his faction and for that of Sihanouk, Son Sann revealed the fragility of the coalition. ". . . The strength of the non-communists must be increased to parity with that of their communist partners (the Khmer Rouge) in order to prevent an eventual takeover by force of Cambodia, once liberated," he said.
"I am in the tiger's cage . . . I need a big stick."
Sihanouk, interviewed by an American magazine in Peking and later threatening to resign, gave the back of his hand to both his coalition partners. "Son Sann . . . is an honorable man, but Son Sann and his generals are zero on the battlefield," the prince said. He said that Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge military commander, "is no zero." But he did call the Khmer Rouge leader "a monster."
Khmer Rouge leaders rarely speak for the record, but Hu Yaobang, the Chinese Communist Party chief, stepped to their defense last week in an address in Canberra, Australia. In a revisionist appraisal of Khmer Rouge rule, Hu asserted that the communist resistance faction was increasing its forces. He said:
"If Khmer Rouge committed heinous crimes, as was suggested, claimed by others, I think this expansion would be unthinkable."
Many Western analysts here attribute the continued Khmer Rouge support in the Cambodian countryside to the faction's extreme nationalism, or the intimidation of terroristic tactics, or a combination of both.
China is the sole arms supplier of the Khmer Rouge, and gives some weapons to the non-communist resistance factions, which also get some from ASEAN countries.
The appeal for U.S. military aid was heightened by an amendment to the U.S. foreign-aid bill that would allot $5 million for the non-communist resistance, to be funneled through Thailand. The amendment, by Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.), does not rule out using the funds for arms. It has been adopted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Son Sann and Sihanouk's son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, followed up the Solarz amendment with a visit to Washington to appeal for direct American arms aid.
The appeal received a qualified no, which the resistance interpreted as a maybe.
"We are convinced that the resistance forces do not need U.S. weapons now," said State Department spokesman Edward Djerejian, "but we do not think its is wise to forgo having flexibility on this point should circumstances change."
Reaction from the resistance and its supporters was quick in coming. Thai Foreign Minister Siddhi Savetsila, while not specifically mentioning the State Department position, said, "The United States is not only following the ASEAN's lead . . . ; today the U.S. is also taking many initiatives on its own which are likely to rebound to the benefit of peace and stability in this region.
"The U.S. may, at long last, have been able to remove the Vietnam albatross from its neck."