The United Nations will have to send a combat force, similar to the one that fought the Korean War almost 40 years ago, to prevent the murderous Khmer Rouge from regaining power in Cambodia after the withdrawal of Vietnamese occupation troops, the prime minister of Malaysia said Monday.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed predicted that it will be at least five years before Cambodia’s two pro-Western factions gain enough military strength to defeat the Khmer Rouge, the brutal Marxist faction that controlled the nation in the late 1970s and is blamed for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians.
Talking to a small group of reporters over lunch, Mahathir said Prince Norodom Sihanouk, leader of one of the pro-Western factions, “is confident he can handle the situation, but we have our doubts.”
Mahathir, in New York to address the U.N. General Assembly today, met at the United Nations with Vietnamese officials. He said the Vietnamese are ready to leave Cambodia because “they are tired of this war.”
Although the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Malaysia is a member, has repeatedly called for Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, Mahathir warned, “If they leave Cambodia just like that, Cambodia may experience a civil war or revert to the kind of (Khmer Rouge) government they had before.”
He said Sihanouk’s military force, once considered almost insignificant with only 5,000 troops, has increased to about 20,000 in recent months. But the other pro-Western faction, led by former Prime Minister Son Sann, has shrunk from 12,000 fighters to 5,000. He said the Khmer Rouge controls at least 30,000 troops.
“With a little help, we can strengthen the Sihanouk forces and the anti-Khmer Rouge forces,” Mahathir said. “It would take maybe five years.”
U.S. Military Aid
The Reagan Administration has been providing military aid to the Sihanouk and Son Sann forces. But Administration officials concede that the Khmer Rouge faction is the strongest militarily in the anti-Vietnam Cambodian resistance.
China supports the Khmer Rouge, which Chinese officials insist has reformed. Secretary of State George P. Shultz discussed the Cambodia situation with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen Monday at the United Nations. Shultz meets Mahathir today.
Mahathir said that until the pro-Western forces grow in strength, “there will have to be some U.N. presence in the form of a peacekeeping force to oversee the referendum (to determine the country’s government), to oversee the administration and generally give both moral and physical support to Sihanouk. Otherwise, I think the Khmer Rouge will take over.”
Reminded that U.N. forces seldom engage in combat and function best where both sides to a controversy agree to respect the peacekeeping role, Mahathir said: “The U.N. sent U.S. forces to South Korea. It is nothing new.
“There must be an international consensus about what the U.N. should do,” he added. “The U.N. must accept a role in Cambodia if we are going to have a Cambodia that is viable.”
Mahathir also said he hopes the United States will consider Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s proposal for the United States to abandon its bases in the Philippines in exchange for Soviet withdrawal from bases in Vietnam.
But he conceded that it might not be a fair swap. He said that closing U.S. bases in the Philippines would have an adverse economic impact on the Philippine economy. Nevertheless, he said Malaysia would like to see both superpowers reduce their military profile.