Vietnam's nearly completed military withdrawal from Cambodia has shifted the focus from Vietnam's behavior to the possible return to power by force of the notorious Khmer Rouge, during whose almost four-year reign of terror as many as 3 million Cambodians perished.
Haunted by the specter of such a possibility and pressed to make a choice now, Cambodians would reluctantly accept a Vietnam-dominated regime as the lesser of two evils.
Cambodia's problem began in 1975, when a rightist coup toppled the government of charismatic Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Cambodia's population became polarized. Many joined the new military-dominated regime, while others opposed it and rallied around the prince.
The insignificant Cambodian communist movement known as the Khmer Rouge quickly capitalized on this division. Overnight, with assistance from China and especially Vietnam, the Khmer Rouge grew into a full-fledged army capable of routing the government within less than a year. Confident in their success, they quickly turned against their benefactors, the Vietnamese, whom Cambodians have perennially suspected of nurturing centuries-old territorial ambitions. Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978 and installed in Pnomh Penh a more compliant regime, drawn from a dissident wing of the Khmer Rouge.
Aren't we now too eager to forget that the leadership of the Hun Sen regime in Phnom Penh is largely composed of top leaders of the same Khmer Rouge that Vietnam helped to power in Cambodia in the first place? Aren't we too quick to assume that these former Khmer Rouge cadres have reformed?
At last month's Paris peace conference on Cambodia, a stumbling block to agreement was whether to include the Khmer Rouge in an interim government whose task will be to organize general elections. Oddly enough, while non-communist Cambodian parties generally recognize the need for a Khmer Rouge presence in such a national reconciliation government, the Phnom Penh regime absolutely refuses to accept any role for its former comrades. The problem is compounded by the fact that, militarily, the Khmer Rouge is still the strongest of all the Cambodian factions.
Conventional Oriental wisdom requires that one always provide an honorable way out to one's adversary. "Do not chase a mad dog into a corner lest it fight you to the death," we are often reminded. The Khmer Rouge is the mad dog; the trouble is that China is its backer.
China is as much in need of international acceptance as it is of asserting its leadership in world communism. The Khmer Rouge constitutes as much an embarrassment for China as the Tien An Men Square incident. But Beijing will never bend under international pressure, and above all it cannot afford to appear to be failing in its commitment to a brother party in need. To expect China to walk away from its responsibility is to ignore this basic fact.
Speakers at a recent forum in Los Angeles on the future of U.S.-Indochina relations ignored these simple Asian realities. For instance, Rep. Chester G. Atkins (D-Mass.) suggested that we isolate the Khmer Rouge and build up a coalition among non-communist forces within and without the Hun Sen regime in order to defeat the Khmer Rouge. This is, however, the best way to ensure a bloody civil war that no one party could win because we would be pushing China back into a corner, inviting it to respond in kind. Besides, what makes us so sure that the Hun Sen regime is ready to accept this cooperation?
Considering that the people who actually wield power in the Hun Sen regime continue to hide behind the anonymous and collective label of "People's Republic of Kampuchea," we cannot safely assume that Hun Sen himself, generally viewed as more open-minded, will be able to deliver the cooperation of "his" regime. How many Cambodians have died at the hands of men like Chea Sim, Say Puthang, Bou Thang or Heng Samrin, who are in fact the real power behind Hun Sen and who were once part of the Khmer Rouge top leadership? We only know the collective leadership through its front man, Hun Sen.
Morally, it may not be right to suggest that non-communist Cambodians should try to forge an alliance with a group of known murderers (Hun Sen and company) just because they claim they have reformed; it may be equally immoral to force nationalist Cambodians to forge an alliance with the murderous Khmer Rouge. But there is no easy or moral answer anywhere to the Cambodia problem. As another participant in the Los Angeles symposium suggested, "There are no morally clean positions; there are only morally ambiguous choices."
The only reasonable choice for the United States is to ensure that new bloodshed does not occur. That means we cannot ignore the China factor. Providing China an honorable way out in exchange for China's willingness to dump the Khmer Rouge, once the Cambodian people have rejected them in a fair and free election, may just do that.
Distasteful as it may be, China's interests must be represented in an interim government, and that means allowing the Khmer Rouge some representation within it.