Designing A US Policy Toward Cambodia: Avoiding A Blood Bath And Supporting A Democratic Alternative To Communist Tyranny

Vietnam’s promise to withdraw its invasion troops from Cambodia by September 10 has once again aroused Western interest in the fate of this long-suffering country. Particularly troublesome to many in the West has been the prospect that the departure of the Vietnamese, should it occur, could create a political and military vacuum that would likely be filled by the dreaded communist forces of the Khmer Rouge.

Such a prospect has given rise to a heated debate in Washington over the appropriate approach U.S. policy should take toward Cambodia. Added urgency attends this debate in light of the upcoming Sino-Soviet summit (May 15 – May 18). Reports of preparations for the summit indicate that the two sides will have this issue high on their agenda.

There is general agreement In the U.S. that America should not facilitate — or be perceived as facilitating — the return to power of the Khmer Rouge. The two generic approaches to preventing such an outcome are: 1) assisting the creation of a politically viable and militarily competitive democratic alternative headed by Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann or 2) seeking a modus vivendi with the present, Vietnamese-installed puppet regime, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK).

This paper assesses the two alternative approaches and considers the likely implications of imminent U.S. foreign policy decisions for American interests in Southeast Asia.

The Situation on the Ground in Cambodia:


    The Facts of Life for the Non-communist Resistance

At present, the non-communist elements in Cambodia — the Sihanoukist National Army (ANS), led by Prince Sihanouk, and the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF), led by Son Sann — are dependent upon the military protection of the Khmer Rouge with whom they are associated in the tri-partite Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). The non-communist forces number about 25,000 troops while the Khmer Rouge control about 40,000 soldiers. They oppose 80,000 Vietnamese troops occupying Cambodia and 100,000 troops and militia of the Vietnamese-backed PRK. Until the non-communist resistance can protect its base of popular support the democratic resistance cannot survive — except through some form of association with the Khmer Rouge.

    The True Character of the Viet-backed Regime

Those opposing U.S. aid to the non-communist resistance forces of Sihanouk and Son Sann because of their association with the Khmer Rouge often seem to prefer the alternative of dealing with the puppet PRK government. This is especially ironic insofar as it not only amounts to abandoning democratic elements in favor of a communist regime; it also ignores the fact that a substantial number of individuals once associated with the Khmer Rouge now hold senior positions in the PRK.

Among top leaders of the PRK regime who were former leaders of the Khmer Rouge before Vietnam’s December 1978 invasion are:


  • Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge regiment commander until late 1977, is now Premier of the PRK;

  • Heng Samrin, a former Khmer Rouge division commander until 1978, is now Secretary General of the PRK;

  • Chea Sim, leader of the PRK National Assembly who was, until 1978, a member of the Representative Assembly during the reign of the brutal Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot;

  • Hor Nam Hong, currently the PRK Deputy Foreign Minister and Hun Sen’s personal aide charged with conducting negotiations with Sihanouk, was deputy chief of the Boeung Trabeck "reeducation" camp in 1977 when at least 9 former officials of the Sihanouk government and their families were executed or perished at this camp;

  • Mat Ly, who is currently the Trade Union Chairman of the PRK and a Central Committee member, was a member of Pol Pot’s Representative Assembly until 1978;

  • Chea Soth, a former Khmer Rouge cadre, is now a member of the PRK Politburo;

  • Other top PRK leaders, including Minister of Trade Tan Saroem, are former Khmer Rouge leaders. They have merged with a large number of ex-Khmer Rouge and ex-Khmer Vietminh raised and trained in Vietnam to dominate the PRK government, including the military and police forces.

A telling indication of the close ideological affinity between the PRK and the detested Khmer Rouge may be found in the fact that Cambodia continues to celebrate April 17 — the day the Khmer Rouge completed its domination of the country in 1975 — as a national holiday.

Toward a Constructive U.S. Policy:

These considerations argue for an American policy approach aimed at fostering genuine democratic movements and precluding the consolidation of power in the hands of tyrannical communists — be they former or present members of the Khmer Rouge. Toward this end the Bush Administration is reported to be developing a plan to supply the non-communist elements of the GCDK with urgently needed military assistance — an approach very similar to that espoused by the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Pacific and East Asian Affairs, Representative Stephen Solarz.

Such assistance, with provisions designed to preclude the chance of its diversion to the Khmer Rouge, will significantly improve the military capabilities and diplomatic leverage of the non-communist resistance. It will also represent important U.S. political and moral support to the non-communist forces as they enter the crucial phase of negotiations in pursuit of independence and freedom.

The Ill-advised Pell Alternative:

Unfortunately, on May 4, 1989, Senator Claiborne Pell, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced legislation that would ban any U.S. military aid to the Cambodian non-communist resistance as long as it is even loosely "associated" with the Khmer Rouge. Senator Pell contends that supporting these elements of the existing anti-Vietnamese coalition (the CGDK) — so long as the coalition includes the Khmer Rouge — only promotes the likelihood that the Khmer Rouge will again attain power and repeat its genocidal atrocities.

The effect of the Pell Amendment, however, would be to increase the likelihood of Khmer Rouge predominance. It would leave Sihanouk and other non-communist Cambodians sandwiched between two militant and well-armed communist factions; one (the Khmer Rouge) supported by China and the other (the PRK) backed by the Soviet Union and Vietnam. By blocking the distribution of military aid to the non-communist resistance, the Pell amendment would condemn Cambodia to a future comprised of further political repression, economic stagnation, and bloodshed.

Factors Arguing for Military Support to the Non-Communist Forces:


  • Communists Do Not Respect Weak Competitors


    Should Prince Sihanouk and the KPLNF not receive adequate military and diplomatic support they will be victimized by both the Khmer Rouge and the PRK, regardless of any negotiated settlement intended to govern post-occupation Cambodia.

    The fact that the PRK’s leadership is dominated by former Khmer Rouge leaders means that, despite the best intentions of the Pell amendment, one or another faction of the Khmer Rouge will continue to dominate Cambodia.

    Given the present military balance between the communist forces and those of the non-communist elements, it must be expected that the dominant Khmer Rouge faction rapidly will seek to eliminate any meaningful challenge posed to the regime by proponents of democracy.

    A similar pattern was followed by the Khmer Rouge when it came to power in the 1970s and by Hanoi in its conquest of South Vietnam after 1973.


  • Will the Vietnamese Actually Depart?

    On 22 April 1989, Thai military officials reported that: "Vietnam did not withdraw 50,000 troops, as reported last December; but only 20,000 men who were mostly crippled and wounded. These troops were replaced by fresh numbers from Vietnam who were immediately merged with PRK troops through a change in uniform, and there is an urgent effort to teach these troops Khmer. When the supposed Vietnamese withdrawal occurs in September there will still be Vietnamese troops left wearing Kampuchean uniforms."

    The PRK Minister of Defense and Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Tie Banh, stated moreover on 25 April 1989: "A number of Vietnamese technical experts and instructors would remain in Cambodia after September."

    This formulation ensures a continued, possibly sizeable, Vietnamese presence on the ground after the "withdrawal."


  • Even if the Vietnamese Go, Will They Cede Control?

    It is not self-evident that the Vietnamese will actually, voluntarily give up effective control of Cambodia.

    Vietnam’s puppet regime, the PRK, will continue to field 40,000 regular troops and 60,000 militia.

    This represents an impressive military force capable of dominating much of Cambodia.

    In any event, it is certainly the case that Vietnam will leave behind a considerable stockpile of weaponry. If the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan is a model, the Vietnamese will also maintain a steady infusion of additional arms as needed.


  • Will the Vietnamese Violate A Settlement Accord?
    • They violated the 1954 Geneva Agreements by leaving behind cadres and military personnel in South Vietnam; and stepping up subversion;

    • They violated the 1962 Geneva Accords by maintaining significant numbers of troops in Laos; and expanded the Ho Chi Minh Trail into Cambodia and South Vietnam;

    • They violated the 1973 cease-fire between communist and non-communist forces in Laos by maintaining significant numbers of troops there; and

    • They violated the 1973 Paris Peace Accords by launching massive military offensives against South Vietnam.

    Hanoi — to an extent remarkable even for communists — has shown a zest for violating internationally recognized agreements, usually in conjunction with local proxies:


Only strong military and political support for Sihanouk, Son Sann and Cambodia’s non-communist movement can prevent Vietnam from effectively undermining an agreementand prevent Khmer Rouge or PRK forces from crushing the non-communists whether or not all Vietnamese troops withdraw from Cambodia.

Any move signalling a lack of U.S. support for Sihanouk and the non-communists only strengthens the militant role of the Soviet Union and China — at a time when their continuing rapprochement may provide them the opportunity to cooperate in permanently establishing a communist government in Cambodia. The upcoming Sino-Soviet summit (15-18 May) will include discussion of the Cambodian issue. The desire of both nations to conclude a successful summit may well mean the Soviets will agree to have certain "acceptable" Khmer Rouge leaders join a coalition government. Coupled with a unilateral U.S. refusal to supply arms to the non-communist resistance and U.S. failure to press the USSR and PRC for a democratic Cambodian solution, such an agreement wil produce a modus vivendi whereby the Soviets and Chinese ensure their respective communist puppets rule Cambodia in the future.

As a result of substantial U.S. aid cuts to neighboring Thailand and the ability of the PRC to re-arm the Thai communists at any time, Bangkok has become significantly dependent on PRC policies for its security. In the absence of U.S. military support, the non-communist Cambodian resistance has similarly come to be dependent on the PRC’s good will to prevent the Khmer Rouge from decimating them.

Providing military assistance to the non-communist forces will lessen their dependence on the PRC, improve the chances of negotiating a genuine agreement, and maintain U.S. influence in the region in support of peaceful, democratic change in Cambodia in accord with U.N. resolutions. For these reasons, the Pell Amendment is contrary to the interests of the United States and those of non-communist groups and nations in Southeast Asia.

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