As Vietnam prepares to withdraw its forces from Cambodia, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who cold-bloodedly killed up to 2 million of their fellow Cambodians the last time they held power, appear to be positioning themselves to once again seize control.
In order to avoid such a dreadful denouement to the Cambodian drama, we need a comprehensive strategy designed to promote a political settlement that will end the fighting and effectively prevent the Khmer Rouge from returning to power.
In an effort to facilitate the negotiation of such a settlement, there are a number of steps the United States should take.
--We should use our influence in Beijing to persuade the Chinese to terminate their support for the Khmer Rouge, regardless of whether the Cambodians reach a political settlement.
--We should press Thailand to deny the use of its territory for Khmer Rouge base camps. Stripped of their sanctuaries, the Khmer Rouge would find it much more difficult to mount a serious threat against whatever government emerges from the current negotiations.
--The United States should appoint a special emissary for Cambodia, as it has for Afghanistan, Central America and the Middle East. Such a step would maximize our capacity to shape a political settlement compatible with the best interests of the Cambodian people.
--In order to encourage the negotiation of a political settlement, we should strengthen the hand of Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Son Sann, the leaders of the two non-communist resistance groups, by providing military assistance to the movements they lead.
During a recent trip to Southeast Asia, it became apparent to me that Cambodian Premier Hun Sen holds the key to a satisfactory resolution of the conflict. Unlike Afghanistan, where the moujahedeen are insisting on the departure of President Najibullah and the members of the Afghan Communist Party as a condition for concluding a settlement, the non-communist resistance in Cambodia is willing to share power in an interim government with Hun Sen and his current associates.
Yet no agreement will be possible as long as Hun Sen insists that any settlement must be based on an acceptance of the existing government, thereby excluding Sihanouk and Son Sann from any meaningful role in a transitional arrangement, And as long as he believes that the United States may be prepared to accept his regime as the legitimate voice of the Cambodian people, he is unlikely to make the concessions necessary for a political settlement.
The prospects for a political settlement would be significantly enhanced by sending a strong signal to Hun Sen and his Vietnamese patrons that the United States will not accept the existing regime as a fait accompli . By showing our support for Sihanouk and Son Sann through the provision of military assistance, we would create more incentives for Hun Sen to make the concessions necessary for a genuine settlement.
Those who suggest that providing arms to the non-communist resistance would obstruct a political settlement miss the point of the proposal. The purpose is not to increase the level of violence in Cambodia, but to enhance the prospects for a political settlement that will bring the violence to an end.
It is possible, of course, that the negotiations will break down and that no political settlement will be reached. In that case, military assistance to the non-communists also would constitute a further hedge against the return to power of the Khmer Rouge, who still field a fierce and formidable force of 30,000 to 40,000 men under arms.
Skeptics have said that any aid we provide the non-communist resistance will inevitably end up in the hands of the Khmer Rouge. But the resistance forces do not train or fight with the Khmer Rouge and are not even located in close proximity to them. Indeed, over the last decade there is no known instance of such arms shipments being diverted to the Khmer Rouge. This is an “imaginary horrible” that need not concern us.
Others fear that the provision of lethal aid to the resistance will gradually lead to a more direct involvement by the United States. These concerns are grossly exaggerated. After years of aiding the moujahedeen in Afghanistan without the introduction of U.S. troops or advisers, there is no reason to believe that a decision to send military assistance to the non-communist resistance will lead us down the slippery path toward another American military involvement in Indochina.
The restoration of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia would be both politically unacceptable and morally unthinkable. The whole purpose of providing arms to the non-communists is to prevent, at the negotiating table if possible but on the battlefield if necessary, the Khmer Rouge from once again turning Cambodia into the killing fields.