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Could Khmer Rouge ever return to power in Cambodia?

Elections aimed at restoring democracy to Cambodia are set for late this month, but it seems unlikely they will bring about a much wanted political settlement to that blood-soaked nation's quarter century of internal divisions. Not as long as Pol Pot, mastermind of the genocide that took the lives of one-fifth of the nation's 5 million people, remains armed and intent on returning to power.

With great hope and expectations, U.N.-sponsored peace talks in 1991 in Paris led to four-party agreement among warring Cambodia factions. At that time they all said they would lay down their arms and agree to nonviolent political accommodations.

What has happened, instead, is that one of the parties to that agreement, the Khmer Rouge, has subsequently violated virtually every aspect of the agreement, refusing to disarm, refusing to turn from its violent ways and, most recently, refusing to have anything to do with the elections.

To the contrary, last week Khmer Rouge forces scored a major psychological victory by attacking and breaking through government defenses of the provincial capital of Siem Reap, home of the Ankor Wat temple complex, pride of national identity.

The Khmer Rouge's intended and successfully delivered message only three weeks before the U.N.-supervised elections: "Your government cannot protect you; make your accommodations now."

In recent months, the Khmer Rouge have become increasingly defiant, attacking and assassinating selected targets, especially Vietnamese living in Cambodia. It has boldly kidnapped members of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia.

Some are even asking the unthinkable: "Could the Khmer Rouge ever return to power. Might history repeat itself?"

The shocking answer is: It is possible if Western-backed U.N. efforts come to an end following the elections. Having forced Vietnamese troops out of Cambodia, as a price for U.S. diplomatic recognition and World Bank aid, Washington bears a special responsibility to see to it that the United Nations remains resolute, despite its weariness, in the wake of the elections.

This is not to say the 22,000 U.N. troops and officials who have been in Cambodia for the past year to prepare for the elections have brought a special blessing to the country. With them have come the bars and the prostitutes and the villas, vestiges of Cambodia's colonial past.

However, the UNTAC forces have provided a visible buffer separating the Khmers from their former murdering conquerors. The West, particularly the United States, has a responsibility to the Cambodian people to see to it the Khmer Rouge never return to power. This is especially so given the decades of U.S. breeding that has enabled Pol Pot and his henchmen to be the forces they are today.

To understand U.S. culpability, it is necessary to go back a bit in history. In 1969 a frustrated U.S. president, Richard Nixon, in pursuit of elusive North Vietnamese "sanctuaries" in Cambodia, began a secret bombing campaign over that country.

Until then, Prince Norodam Sihanouk had masterfully maintained a policy he referred to as that of "extreme neutrality." He wisely knew he had no choice if he wanted to keep his nation out of war.

Nixon, however, would have nothing of it; what followed was the fateful 1970 U.S.-backed Sihanouk coup led by Cambodian Gen. Lon Nol. It sent the prince into exile and gave Washington a Cambodian head of state with which it could work.

One year later, on April 27, 1971, U.S. policy architects organized a South Vietnamese-U.S. invasion (calling it an "incursion"), which finally ripped open festering political wounds of a divided populace.

It also offered Pol Pot an unparalleled propaganda bonanza. Nixon's secret bombing of Cambodia, carried out without U.S. congressional knowledge in violation of the U.S. Constitution, increased. In 1973, the U.S. dropped a tonnage equivalent of five Hiroshima bombs on Cambodia, fueling the fire.

By 1975, defeated U.S. intentions were quite apparent. Lon Nol was on the run, and on the morning of April 17 the first Khmer Rouge forces proudly marched into Phnom Penh. What the United States tried to avoid they had virtually assured, instead.

The Khmer Rouge were initially viewed as liberators -- but only for hours. That was when "Year Zero" was proclaimed and the genocide began, full scale. Religion was banned, 60,000 Buddhist monks murdered, intellectuals sought out and shot, anyone speaking a foreign language was sentenced to death -- all in the name of a perverse ethnic "purification."

The international community, meanwhile, stood silently by, despite sporadic calls for foreign intervention, until December 1978. Then Vietnamese troops, seizing an opportunity and fearing the growing strength of the Khmer Rouge on its borders, invaded Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge were quickly driven to enclaves along the Thai border while the Vietnamese set up, by any objective standard, a relatively benign government led by the Cambodian leader, Hun Sen.

Still smarting from a historic defeat and resenting every Hanoi intention, Washington had refused to recognize the Hun Sen government, preferring instead to support Pol Pot for three years in a contested battle for a seat at the U.N. General Assembly.

A pact with the devil had been signed.

Western support for the Khmer Rouge slowly turned to a more palatable support for a broader based anti-Hun Sen resistant coalition, which included both Sihanouk and Pol Pot. However, the result was to deny Cambodia almost all vitally needed Western relief aid throughout much of the 1980s.

In effect, the West was continuing its war against Hanoi in Cambodia. The price for diplomatic recognition of Vietnam and a lifting of its economic boycott, Washington insisted for years, was a total withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from "occupied" Cambodia.

Little thought was ever expressed concerning the fate of potential victims who relied on Vietnam as their only protection against further Pol Pot atrocities.

By 1990 most Vietnamese troops, under Western pressure, had returned home and U.N. talk of "normalization" had begun. Having "legitimized" the Khmer Rouge, even to see it violate virtually every aspect of the agreement its leaders have signed, the West, working through the United Nations, now has a pressing responsibility to see to it that mass murderer Pol Pot is kept in check.

That may mean maintaining a commitment to a nonviolent political process for many years to come.
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 14, 1993
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