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The Land of the One-Legged Man : Maimed by Years of Civil War, Cambodians No Longer Care Who Wins. They Just Want the Violence to Stop

September 22, 1991|Peter S. Goodman | Peter S. Goodman is a Jakarta-based freelance writer. He has written for New York Newsday, the Baltimore Sun and the Dallas Morning News.

Incomprehensible tragedy followed. In its attempts to build a purely agrarian society, the Khmer Rouge slaughtered anyone deemed alien to its mission. Most of the nation's artists, doctors, intellectuals and teachers--anyone who clashed with the profile of a peasant--were murdered. Wearing glasses, being able to speak a foreign language and having uncallused hands were all considered offenses against the revolution and usually resulted in death. Between 1 million and 3 million Cambodians, of a population of about 7 million, died during the more than three years of Khmer Rouge rule. People were slaughtered in the "killing fields" and dumped in pits like refuse. The seas of rotting corpses left behind were a monument to stunning brutality.

The Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in January, 1979, citing fears that Pol Pot would soon attack them. The Khmer Rouge fell, but the suffering continued. From the day that Vietnam installed a pro-Hanoi government in the capital, Phnom Penh, three guerrilla factions--the Sihanoukists, the Khmer Rouge and the Khmer People's National Liberation Front (KPNLF) led by former Prime Minister Son Sann--have waged war to overthrow it. They claim that the Cambodian government, headed by Premier Hun Sen, is nothing more than a puppet regime controlled by Hanoi.

The resistance would be insignificant were it not for the tremendous support of the United States and China. The Khmer Rouge's troop strength is estimated to be about 30,000, and the KPNLF and the Sihanoukists (referred to as the "non-communist resistance" as a bloc) total no more than 25,000 men, while Phnom Penh has at least 100,000 armed men under its command. But the Khmer Rouge has received virtually limitless supplies of arms from Beijing, and refugee camps in eastern Thailand--subsidized by the United Nations International Border Relief Organization to the tune of more than $55 million per year--function as support bases, and recruitment camps, for resistance guerrillas.

The United States has spent $30 million in foreign aid since 1986 to build schools, roads and hospitals in areas close to the Thai border, where the largest part of the resistance is based. It is a strategic allocation, providing resistance-controlled enclaves within western Cambodia where refugees can be settled. It is this sliver of western Cambodia, along with a few mountain pockets across the country, that is controlled by the guerrillas. The rest of the country, where the vast majority of Cambodians live, is controlled by Phnom Penh, but, apart from a token shipment of medicine earlier this year, not a single penny of U.S. money has been spent in those areas. Aiding the resistance is viewed by policy-makers as a good way to maintain influence with China and counter Soviet influence, via Hanoi, in the region. Fragments of Cold War logic continue to drive policy, and other considerations are forgotten, including the fact that several hundred thousand Cambodians and Americans died during the failed effort to prevent the ascendancy of the Khmer Rouge--the very group now indirectly supported.

Although all U.S. aid to the resistance is classified as "non-lethal," it provides uniforms, medicine and everything short of arms necessary to fight a war to the KPNLF and the Sihanoukists, both of which share supplies with the Khmer Rouge. In July, 1990, stung by charges that U.S. policy was boosting the chances of the Khmer Rouge, the Bush Administration withdrew diplomatic recognition of the non-communists. But Washington continues to funnel some $10 million a year in aid to the groups, which, according to diplomatic sources, also received as much as $20 million in covert military aid from the United States last year. Sixteen years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnam War rages on.

Yet it is, in part, the influence of China and the United States that has pushed the peace talks forward. If the promised reduction in forces occurs, it will smooth the way for further negotiations of a U.N. peace plan that has been on the table for more than a year. Progress on the plan has been escalated by the recent rapprochement between China and Vietnam--Beijing has encouraged the Khmer Rouge to end hostilities. The State Department also has insisted that the United States will not normalize relations with Hanoi until there is a comprehensive settlement, preferably one that would end the Hun Sen regime. The plan would bring a U.N. peacekeeping force into Cambodia in the near future to work with the Supreme National Council to supervise free elections. The current cease-fire has been extended and strengthened by the presence of the U.N. monitors. The peace talks will resume in October.

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