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Is Another Vietnam Rising in Cambodia?

October 02, 1994|Marvin Ott | Marvin Ott specializes in Asian security issues at the National War College

WASHINGTON — With the world's attention riveted on Haiti and Bosnia, the United States has crossed a foreign-policy Rubicon in Indochina. The Clinton Administration has quietly agreed to a Cambodian request for defense assistance and dispatched about 45 military advisers to the country.

It's hard to imagine an initiative that raises more specters. Are we about to become embroiled in a new Indochina conflict even as we continue to try to account for the casualties of the last one?

A few years ago, Phnom Penh was a ghost town. The killing fields had claimed nearly a quarter of the country's population. With good reason, many Cambodians felt they had been cursed by the gods and abandoned by the world.

Today, the capital city is alive with activity. Shops are stocked, children are in school, restaurants and food stalls are busy, foreign businessmen are exploring investment opportunities and traffic jams are becoming a problem. There are few signs of the classic development pathologies--limos pushing bicycles to the side of the road, beggars, filth, large, walled mansions adjacent to shanty towns and environmental abuses. Much of the same, though on a reduced scale, can be said of the country's major provincial towns.

All this is unfolding against the backdrop of a political transformation: successful national elections, conducted by the United Nations, and the establishment of a coalition government presided over by an ultimate survivor and national symbol--King Norodom Sihanouk. The Parliament has emerged as an arena for remarkably open debates. The press is passably free. And an active Cambodian human-rights organization keeps nipping at the government's heels.

Yet, a great many Cambodians are fearful. Serious human-rights abuses by some provincial authorities go unpunished and unchecked. A recent coup attempt highlights the fragility of the new political order. Four months ago, a Khmer Rouge force expelled a disorganized Cambodian army from the provincial town of Pailin. After this debacle, a final attempt to reach a political settlement between the new government and the Khmer Rouge collapsed. Parliament put its seal on the outcome by voting to formally outlaw the Khmer Rouge.

Paradoxically, this is good news. A debilitating illusion--that the Khmer Rouge can somehow be accommodated in a political settlement--has long hampered prospects for a resolution of the Cambodia problem. The same small coterie of secretive fanatics who created the killing fields of Cambodia still lead the Khmer Rouge. The men and the agenda remain the same: to achieve total power and to liquidate everything and everyone in Cambodia that might resist the communization of the country. The Cambodian government now seems to understand that there can be only one solution with two variants: the elimination of the Khmer Rouge either through military defeat or gradual marginalization.

Cambodia's leaders also realize that a thorough overhaul of the Cambodian army is a precondition for any satisfactory outcome. The current army has been described--without great exaggeration--as the worst in the world. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen calls it "an embarrassment." About one-third of its nominal 140,000 troops are "ghost soldiers." Nearly 70% of its actual force consists of officers (2,000 of whom are generals). Both Hun Sen and First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh agree that the army must be substantially downsized (to perhaps 60,000), the percentage of officers drastically reduced and the training and education of officer corps and rank-and-file given the highest priority.

But any move to rapidly demobilize would cast large numbers of young men with few employable skills into a civilian economy that has no place for them. The inevitable result would be banditry and insecurity, if not a military coup. And any hope to improve training and education of existing personnel founders on the dearth of teachers and trainers.

Enter the United States. Ranariddh and Hun Sen, supported by Sihanouk, want the United States to "adopt" three or four Cambodian army battalions and train and equip them for construction work. Then with U.S. economic assistance, these units could be demobilized and used for civilian road building and other projects.

Washington is providing military construction advisers, graders and bulldozers, and de-mining specialists. It is an important start, but just a start.

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