WORLD

LEAVING THE KILLING FIELDS

THE PROSPECT OF CIVIL WAR RETURNS AS THE VIETNAMESE WITHDRAW FROM CAMBODIA

MARY NEMETH October 9 1989
WORLD

LEAVING THE KILLING FIELDS

THE PROSPECT OF CIVIL WAR RETURNS AS THE VIETNAMESE WITHDRAW FROM CAMBODIA

MARY NEMETH October 9 1989

LEAVING THE KILLING FIELDS

WORLD

In town after town, Cambodians lined the streets waving Vietnamese flags. Young women hung garlands of flowers on the shoulders of soldiers, and firecrackers flared last week during ceremonies held to honor departing Vietnamese troops. By midweek, the last of what was once a 200,000strong occupying force, riding in a rattling convoy of some 600 vehicles, had withdrawn to Vietnam along Highway 1, connecting the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. Many of the Vietnamese troops had used the same road almost 11 years ago when they invaded Cambodia to overthrow the country’s leader, Pol Pot, and the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, which slaughtered more than one million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.

Meanwhile, fear and doubt overshadowed the festivities. Many Cambodians say that they are deeply concerned that Communist Khmer Rouge guerrillas may regain power by overthrowing the Vietnamese-installed government. As well, most of the 30 nations that Cambodia had invited to monitor the Vietnamese withdrawal, including Canada, refused to send observers because officials said that the retreat should have been part of a comprehensive settlement of the conflict that would include the formation of an interim coalition government leading to elections. For its part, China will likely continue arming the Khmer Rouge, while the Soviet Union, which supported the 1978 Vietnamese invasion, will probably maintain its backing for the Phnom Penh government. Meanwhile, President George Bush has given no indication that the United States will stop sending aid to two non-Communist resistance factions allied with the Khmer Rouge. U.S. officials say that Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the non-Communist leader of the three-party rebel coalition, is the only figure who can unite all the Cambodian factions.

On the eve of the Vietnamese withdrawal, a last-minute attempt by Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan to negotiate a ceasefire broke down between the various factions. And last week, former Cambodian prime minister Son Sann, representing the resistance coalition that is recognized by the United Nations as the

THE PROSPECT OF CIVIL WAR RETURNS AS THE VIETNAMESE WITHDRAW FROM CAMBODIA

legitimate government of Cambodia, claimed that the withdrawal was incomplete. He told the UN General Assembly that Vietnam left behind at least 30,000 soldiers disguised as Cambodians and that another 100,000 Vietnamese settlers had been armed in Cambodia. Hanoi, he said, “has prepared the situation for a civil war.”

The Khmer Rouge and their non-Communist allies have been battling the Phnom Penh government for a decade. During much of that time, Vietnam and Cambodia negotiated with China, the United States and several Southeast Asian states to stop aiding the rebels in exchange for the withdrawal of the Vietnamese occupation force. But negotiations failed, and last April, Vietnam, struggling with its own weakened economy, announced unilaterally that it would pull out its remaining 26,000 troops by September.

Still, concerns that the Khmer Rouge will defeat its weaker non-Communist allies and government forces have led some legislators in Washington to criticize U.S. support of the rebel coalition.

Wrote James Leach, an Iowa Republican congressman, in a commentary last week: “We should wash our hands of the sordid alliance. The Khmer Rouge should be dis-

armed and universally discredited, not allowed to wreak havoc once again in a gentle land.”

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen claims that his government is strong enough to resist the Khmer Rouge. Other officials say that the government has about 50,000 troops and more than 100,000 village militiamen. But the Phnom Penh regime faces a Khmer Rouge army with an estimated 40,000 men and the two non-Communist factions that together

command about 26,000 guerrillas. In fact, last week, Cambodia’s defence minister, Tea Banh, conceded that Khmer Rouge guerrillas had seized some territory around the mineral-rich

town of Pailin, in western Cambodia near the Thai border.

Western experts say that the Cambodian army, which has been largely idle as Vietnamese soldiers did most of the fighting over the past decade, is made up of poorly paid young draftees who are reluctant to fight. The desertion rate is high, they add, and Phnom Penh will have difficulty warding off the well-armed and ruthless Khmer Rouge forces. “Everyone in my village is very afraid,” Thu Mao, 36, told Maclean’s as she sat in a wheelchair at a provincial hospital, her black pants folded over the stumps of her two legs, which were blown off by a mine that she said was planted by the Khmer Rouge. She added: “I don’t want to go back home.

I’m not sure the village militia can protect me.”

The military occupation hurt the Vietnamese both in lives lost and in economic terms. A Vietnamese military spokesman said recently that 55,000 soldiers and Vietnamese civilians along the border have been killed since the hostilities began. As well, leaders in Hanoi have suffered increasing economic pressure from a trade boycott by most of the non-Communist world. High unemployment has contributed to rising crime, and scores of disillusioned Vietnamese

have fled from the country on rickety sailboats.

For many of the Vietnamese soldiers returning home last week, the future seemed grim. Vietnam’s army newspaper Quan Doi Nhan Dan said in August that there were neither jobs nor land for them.

But the future for Cambodia is even more threatening. Spokesmen for the three resistance factions and the Phnom Penh government all say that they want to negotiate a solution to their conflict. They have agreed that Cambodia should hold free elections. But they cannot agree on the composition of an interim government that would supervise the balloting. Sihanouk insists on including the Khmer Rouge in order to avoid a deadly power struggle. But Prime Minister Hun Sen steadfastly refuses to consider a coalition with the Khmer Rouge.

With political negotiations deadlocked, it seemed likely that the rival factions would compete on the battlefield until one party establishes a clear superiority. For those Cambodians who survived the killing fields of Pol Pot and the 11-year occupation by Vietnam, the future promises little reward.

MARY NEMETH

NICHOLAS CUMMING-BRUCE