'In Pol Pot time'

Anthony Lewis

August 27, 1993|By Anthony Lewis

IN POL POT time," Cambodians will say, they lost five or 10 or 70 members of their family. They use the name of the Khmer Rouge leader for the genocidal years of its rule, 1975-79.

Prince Sihanouk and others in Cambodia's transitional government say they want to bring the Khmer Rouge in from its guerrilla strongholds to play some kind of role in the government. But how can they sit with mass-murderers? I put the question to Prince Sirivudh, the foreign minister, who lost many in his family.

"I am 42 years old," he said. "I have a choice: spend my life on revenge, vendetta, or say it is better to have one Cambodia. I must try to bring out the tigers from the jungle."

Not everyone in the government is eager for an immediate move to bring in the Khmer Rouge. One who sounds cautious is Khieu Kanharith, the minister of information.

"We respect Prince Sihanouk's decision" to seek an arrangement, Mr. Kanharith said, "but the Khmer Rouge are like a time bomb. The question is whether they will really be integrated into the society."

Right now the Khmer Rouge are evidently following the classic strategy of fight-and-talk. They carry out acts of sabotage, blowing up bridges and railroad tracks. The implicit message is: Bring us into the government, or we'll keep making your life miserable. And their leverage could be greater after the U.N. operation ends in September, when there will be fewer resources for defense and sabotage-repair.

The Khmer Rouge have not had the ability to seize a town of any size. But they control an estimated 20 percent of the countryside, and they have plenty of weapons -- and money, because of their deals with the Thai military for Cambodian timber and gems. (Cambodians are skeptical of claims that Thai dealing has ended, though they believe that China has stopped arming the Khmer Rouge.)

The government is clear on the conditions for any arrangement: The Khmer Rouge must stop its violence, bring its forces into the national army and allow access to areas it controls. The main zone is near Siem Reap in the northwest, on the Thai border, but there are other spots around the country.

The general feeling is that the Khmer Rouge really wants to become part of the political process. Of course one has to assume that its aim is still total power; it just hopes to achieve that from within. But there is a fair amount of optimism that in the game of politics, the Khmer Rouge will lose.

"The dynamism of Asia will undermine them," one foreign expert said. "That and the communications revolution."

What he meant was that not even the young Khmer Rouge soldiers, under their fanatical leaders, can escape the lure of the consumer society. They know about the comforts of life next door in Thailand.

In May the Khmer Rouge made a major attack on Siem Reap, not a very successful one. Guerrillas were seen carrying television sets away from houses they raided. Some observers wonder whether they are still a disciplined single force or whether groups have begun to splinter off into banditry.

With all the fear of the Khmer Rouge, and the doubts about dealing with those who killed as many as one million Cambodians in the name of ideological purity, the odds are that the government will try the path of negotiation. The reason lies in popular feeling, as reflected in the election conducted by the U.N. in May.

Roger Lawrence, who directs rehabilitation and economic affairs the U.N. team, put it this way:

"The message of the election was unmistakable: Cambodians want peace. It comes up from the grass roots. In the end that feeling will drive the process. So every effort will be made to get the Khmer Rouge to stop blowing up bridges and come in."

Pol Pot and his colleagues are probably hoping that in time the new government, a coalition of two opposing parties, will split. The Khmer Rouge no doubt also intends, if it gets into politics, to play on the profound difference between the city people and the 80 percent of Cambodians who are in the undeveloped countryside.

"The Khmer Rouge threat can be reduced only if the government succeeds in developing the rural areas," Khieu Kanharith said. "That's why I think quick economic assistance from the world is ** essential."

Anthony Lewis is a New York Times columnist.

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