Khmer Rouge devouring itself Cambodia relief: Rebels now want to come in from the jungle.

August 18, 1996

THE BEST HOPE for war-torn Cambodia since the 1993 U.N.-brokered election that the Khmer Rouge boycotted, is the internecine strife and defection that is reducing that evil terrorist army. This is not peace in the land of permanent war that is still bedeviled by banditry, insurrection and land mines. But it is a reduction in fighting, a diminution of anarchy and a growth of authority for the democratically chosen if politically fractured government.

The U.N.-hatched democratic process produced a government with co-prime ministers. One is Hun Sen, the former Vietnamese-backed Communist ruler. The other is Prince Norodom Ranariddh, son of the longtime ruler and titular head of state, Norodom Sihanouk. But the restoration of civil life attempted by this regime has been undercut by the resistance along the Thai border of the Khmer Rouge, still commanded by Pol Pot, who caused the murder of perhaps 2 million compatriots when ruling in the late 1970s.

The Khmer Rouge have been weakening and now may be falling apart. Pol Pot was rumored months ago to be dead, though indications now are that he is alive but losing authority. His chief henchman for decades, Ieng Sary, was branded a traitor by Khmer Rouge radio and then emerged at the head of some 4,000 Khmer Rouge troops bargaining with the government for a comfortable defection.

Several villages were taken by the defecting troops from Pol Pot loyalists. The terror being spread is going down. The defection, however, has been slow-moving and not without snags. Ieng Sary seeks civil liberties for himself and a political role for his followers. Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a Khmer Rouge defector of two decades ago, thinks it a small price to pay for tranquillity. But followers of First Prime Minister Ranariddh brand Ieng Sary a criminal against humanity who should stand trial. The split in the legitimate government parallels the split among the rebels.

However that plays out, the Khmer Rouge is losing turf and battles, and it could be terminal. That allows real hope for Cambodia's reconstruction, which if it occurs would be among the U.N.'s greatest success stories.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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