PHNOM PENH. — There seems to be about a 50-50 chance that the Khmer Rouge will take over Cambodia again within the next year or so -- with help from President Bush and other Americans still fighting the Vietnam War. The last time it was in power it killed between one million and three million of its countrymen.
The numbers are inexact because no one could count the skulls and skeletons littering the killing fields. The mass murder began on April 17, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge, crazed communist nationalists determined to return their country to an imagined 12th-century purity, came out of the jungles and took Phnom Penh. They marched the population of the capital, more than 2 million Cambodians, into the countryside, where the preferred methods of dispatch were starvation and beheading.
The Khmer Rouge, ignorant and cruel country boys, eliminated anyone they could find tainted by decadent ''Western'' ideas or symbols. Eyeglasses, dental work or soft hands usually amounted to death sentences until the Vietnamese invaded the country and took this empty ghost capital on January 7, 1979 -- driving the KR boys back into the jungle and into refugee camps in Thailand, where they fight on now.
History may be kind to the Vietnamese for what they did here. But the United States is not. Vietnam defeated us in war, but we are killing it in peace with economic sanctions.
When the Vietnamese occupied Cambodia, that made Cambodians our enemies, too -- even though the Vietnamese left two years ago in an attempt to persuade us to lift the sanctions.
Cambodia is still in the wrong place at the wrong time. That's the way it was in the 1960s when the North Vietnamese used the eastern part of the country for a jungle road -- the Ho Chi Minh Trail -- and the United States secretly dropped more bombs on the trail and anything near it than all the bombs dropped in Europe during World War II.
In the deadly chaos of those years, the Khmer Rouge led by Pol Pot drove out an American-installed military government. Pol Pot and his cadres of killers, in turn, were replaced by a Vietnamese-installed government. The prime minister now is a former Khmer Rouge lieutenant named Hun Sen, who defected to Vietnam just before the invasion of 1979.
Our overall policy since then has been the total isolation of the Vietnamese-installed government from the world. The Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917 and veto power in the United Nations are being used to keep out everything from parts to repair power plants, to medicine and food to save children from malnutrition, malaria and the millions of land mines scattered through the country.
That policy, though, is only toward the 8 million Cambodians governed from Phnom Penh -- 64 percent of them female because the Khmer Rouge murdered men -- who get nothing from the world except some rice and medicine and clean wells once in a while from small U.N. emergency programs and non-American relief agencies such as the International Red Cross. Almost half of premature babies are born dead; the overall infant mortality rate is estimated to be 133 per thousand live births; and one out of five of all children die before their fifth birthday -- of diarrhea or measles, or by land mines.
''They are like gods to us,'' said Hun Sen to Elizabeth Becker of the Washington Post about the few young Western relief workers in the country. Ms. Becker, one of the few Americans who know Cambodia well, was in the country in January as part of a delegation of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, an American group. (I was there because my wife, Catherine O'Neill, was also a member of the delegation.)
There is another American policy for the 300,000 Cambodians, including Khmer Rouge soldiers and their families, living in the refugee camps along the Thai border -- or organized as military units on the Cambodian side of the border. For them, the United States gives ''humanitarian'' aid that includes roads, trucks, food, medicine and hospitals in what we call the ''Liberated Zone.''
The camps and supplies -- and Pol Pot's villa in a Thai seaside resort -- are, in effect, support for one side in an ongoing civil war. The hospitals, providing care that is the equivalent of small hospitals in the United States, are ready to treat men who say they are combat casualties from the Non-Communist Resistance. The roads can be used by the tanks now being supplied to the Khmer Rouge by their principal backers, the government of China.
The United States has always denied helping the Khmer Rouge, which is believed to have about 36,000 combat soldiers. Our stated goal is to prevent it from coming to power again, although we supported a KR-dominated Cambodian delegation to the United Nations until a few months ago.