KON SAT, Cambodia -- A group of 30 Khmer Rouge guerrillas entered this tranquil village in southern Cambodia just after dawn and killed two men cutting bananas in a plantation on a hill that marks the village boundary. Then they slipped back into the forest without taking anything.
In a country where raids for food and booty are common, some like the one on this village in the Elephant Mountains last week are clearly designed to perpetuate a climate of fear. The guerrilla leaders were preparing for the arrival of United Nations forces, which are supposed to disarm the guerrillas and prepare for free elections.
The intended message of the raiders was clear. The villagers had better know where their loyalties should lie and not get caught cooperating with the wrong people as the peace process unfolds.
"Around here, you don't need money to buy votes," said a longtime Cambodian observer. "You can intimidate people into voting for you."
"I'm afraid we're going to see more and more incidents like this before the U.N. is actually in the field," a Western aid worker living in Kampot province said Friday after returning
from a village that was recently raided by the Khmer Rouge.
Guerrilla raids for food and valuables make a mockery of Khmer Rouge public claims that they are pursuing a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the people. It becomes difficult to distinguish the hard-core Khmer Rouge forces fighting to retake control of the nation from simple bandits.
"A lot of people were fighting with the Khmer Rouge and have now given it up," said a Western aid worker who lives in Kampot. "But they still have guns, and they're still going into the villages to take food. They don't have anything to eat."
Whether or not the Khmer Rouge are truly pursuing a political strategy, as they claim, is open to question. Clearly, they are not trying to wrest territory from the government, and once the United Nations arrives to beef up the cease-fire that has been in place since May, a military offensive will be difficult.
During a three-day tour of southern Cambodia, it was evident that the Khmer Rouge presence is heavy in this area. The guerrillas are stepping up their activities in the villages, resulting more and more incidents like the one Thursday morning in Kon Sat.
Asked whether the United Nations will be able to restore peace in Cambodia, a man who lives in a nearby village 300 feet from a densely forested hillside said, "I would like to believe in peace, but every day the Khmer Rouge comes down to our village and steals everything and sometimes kills people. Right now it's impossible to live here."
The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1978, transforming the country into a huge forced labor camp in its mission to build a purely agrarian, revolutionary society.
As many as 3 million people were executed or died from overwork or starvation before Vietnam invaded in 1978, chasing Pol Pot from power and installing the current Phnom Penh government.
A tripartite resistance made up of the Khmer Rouge and two smaller U.S.-backed guerrilla forces, totaling no more than 45,000 troops, has battled continuously with the 110,000 troops of the army and militia under the control of the Phnom Penh
Under the peace accords signed by representatives of the four warring factions in Paris last month, a 10,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force that is scheduled to arrive in March will oversee the demobilization of 70 percent of the troops that make up the four armies. The U.N. force will provide security between the demobilization and the free elections. An advance party began arriving in Phnom Penh over the weekend.
The Khmer Rouge control little actual territory inside Cambodia, save for some land bordering Thailand where U.N.-sponsored refugee camps effectively function as bases, complete with food, medical care, and an inexhaustible supply of recruits.
Here in the south, the cities and roads are clearly in the hands of the government . A strong Phnom Penh army presence is in evidence at Kompong Som, Cambodia's largest port, where ships arrive from Japan, South Korea and Singapore carrying electronics, food and medicine.
Huge convoys of trucks -- gunners in place on the roofs to guard against ambush -- travel the main highway connecting the port to Phnom Penh, the capital, about 100 miles to the north. Government militia patrol the roads, and checkpoints are frequent.
The Khmer Rouge got within 3 miles of Kampot, a once picturesque provincial capital whose many old French villas are pockmarked by rifle fire and shelling, before the government repelled the offensive just before the cease-fire in May. Army camps now ring Kampot, and the town has an air of safety.
Vastly outnumbered by better-equipped government troops, the Khmer Rouge stick to the thickly-forested hills, where it is difficult for the army to pursue them.