Giving Peace A Chance In Cambodia: A Primer For US Policy


In the face of continuing warfare in Cambodia, many Americans have chosen to turn away from the conflict there, viewing that unfortunate nation as a distant place of permanent pain. In spite of the incessant battles and bloodshed, however, several recent developments have suggested that there may yet be hope for Cambodia.

For example, the five major powers (the United States, the USSR, China, France and the United Kingdom) have agreed on a promising proposal for settling the conflict, one that envisages a major peacekeeping role for the United Nations. This proposal not only seeks to deny the murderous Khmer Rouge a return to power, but would require the withdrawal of all foreign forces and the holding of free elections. The proposal — and new international steps it would set in train — offer a possibility that the long nightmare of the Cambodian people might finally end and a new measure of peace and stability come to Southeast Asia.

At such a time, it is imperative that the United States government and the American people not abandon a people toward whom they should feel a special attachment, given the travails Cambodia experienced in the course of the Vietnam War. If, instead, this country properly understands the risks and opportunities inherent in the emerging situation and acts in such a way as to ensure further progress, the United States can — at negligible cost to itself — do much to secure the realization of Cambodia’s new-found hopes.

The United Nations Proposal and the Peace Process

In Paris on January 16, 1990, a far-reaching peace plan for Cambodia was proposed by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The plan envisions a greatly enhanced role for the United Nations in resolving the Cambodian crisis. It would entail:

  • the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Cambodia, to be verified by the United Nations;

  • resumption of a dialogue among the Cambodian factions in which none will dominate the process;

  • an effective U.N. presence in Cambodia (including a special representative of the Secretary General), to assure internal security during a transition period intended to lead up to the inauguration of a democratically elected government;

  • toward that end, free and fair elections to be conducted under direct U.N. administration in a neutral political environment (i.e., one in which no party would be advantaged and with all Cambodians to enjoy the same rights, freedoms and opportunities to participate in the election process); and

  • a supreme National Council to serve as the repository of Cambodian sovereignty during the transition period prior to the establishment of the new democratically elected government.


Particularly important to this initiative’s prospects is the commitment of the five nations to honoring the results of free and fair elections, to support responsible efforts by regional parties to achieve a comprehensive political settlement, and to seek an appropriate accounting of the financial burdens to be placed on U.N. member states.

At present, the five powers are seeking to work out details and seek support for the peace plan from the Security Council’s other members and from the U.N.’s membership at large. Additionally, from February 26th to the 28th, the ASEAN Foreign Ministers are discussing the support their countries can give. Subsequently, in Jakarta, the four Cambodian factions, the Vietnamese, the ASEAN countries and France are to meet on the issue, along with Australia and New Zealand as observers. If these efforts are to result in progress, however, this process will require of the international community patience, tenacity and tangible signs of support.

The Changing Perspectives of China, the Soviet Union and Vietnam

A new stimulus to progress in Cambodia grows from the changing perspectives of the three nations who have been the principal external sponsors of conflict in Cambodia: China, the Soviet Union and Vietnam. While each of these states continues to supply assistance to its respective proxy in Cambodia, all three now appear to recognize that the war is imposing unacceptably high costs both on their reeling economies and on their international standing. While their intentions toward Cambodia must — given the record — remain suspect, each appears for the first time now to see a better way of serving its own national interests than to continue on the present, militaristic path.

China appears to regard three compelling reasons for adopting a changed approach: First, while the Chinese have recently made overtures to the Vietnamese on forming a new Asian Communist Bloc, the Chinese want the Vietnamese out of Cambodia. This is a function not only of traditional Chinese-Vietnamese rivalry, but also because the Vietnamese are a major regional ally of the Soviet Union. Importantly, Vietnam provides significant military facilities to Soviet forces in Cambodia (Kompong Som) and Vietnam (Cam Ranh, Danang).

Second, China is suffering a severe image problem in its support of the Khmer Rouge and its hated leader, Pol Pot — a problem only made the more acute by the backlash over the Tiananmen Square crackdown. China may now see more clearly than in the past the benefits of moving in the direction of supporting Prince Norodom Sihanouk, a long-time resident and ally of China.

Third, the Chinese may expect that movement on their part toward peace in Cambodia will benefit them materially in their relations with the United States and other Western states.

For its part, the Soviet Union can ill afford the some $2.5-$3 billion a year in aid it has been pouring into Vietnam, a significant proportion of which has gone to supporting the Vietnamese role in the Cambodian conflict. This sum is in addition to the perhaps $300 million in Soviet aid provided directly each year to the Vietnamese-installed regime in Phnom Penh.

Moreover, the Soviet Union seeks to expand trade with the Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN) and with Japan; its contribution to the Cambodian strife remains an obstacle to improving relations with such nations who are generally supportive of the other side in the conflict. Moscow also knows that Cambodia is an impediment to improving U.S.-Soviet relations. Among other things, inflaming tensions in Southeast Asia is at cross-purposes with the USSR’s efforts to maximize pressure against the U.S. bases in the Philippines, facilities the Soviets have suggested be removed in exchange for their giving up access to bases in Indochina.

Finally, with Cambodia removed as an obstacle for Soviet rapprochement with China, Moscow may hope to reduce somewhat the mutuality of U.S.-PRC interests upon which the United States has drawn in playing the "China card" in superpower relations.

Vietnam long claimed to have removed all of its military forces from Cambodia by September 1989. In late February 1990, however, Vietnam’s Foreign Minister acknowledged that at least 3,000 special forces and numerous additional military "advisors" were active in Cambodia. With or without a direct presence, Vietnam has been sustaining a massive military and economic involvement there, a fact that is contributing significantly to the severe economic disaster with which Hanoi must contend.

The Vietnamese economy is especially ill-equipped to sustain the expense of its Cambodian aggression insofar as Moscow is being obliged to cutback its massive flow of aid. Such a situation redoubles the need Hanoi already felt for economic assistance from the West, which is also impinged upon by the Vietnamese role in occupying and promoting continued strife in Cambodia.

Last but hardly least, Vietnam may believe it has a strong chance to continue its domination of Cambodia — irrespective of the process that now ensues. Past experience shows that Hanoi excels at implementing the age-old stratagem of "fighting while talking."

The Current Situation Within Cambodia

Within Cambodia, the major factions are intensifying their jockeying for power, including preparations for military offensives before the rainy season begins in May.

The Vietnamese in the fall of 1989 suspended some of the more obvious aspects of their occupation of and control over Cambodia — notably, by removing military units with much fanfare. But through the acknowledged presence of their special forces and advisors, as well as other military elements, they directly and indirectly continue to dominate Cambodia (except in some regions near the Thai border).

In addition, clusters of Vietnamese troops, commandoes and mercenaries are reportedly integrated into the army of the Phnom Penh regime. Vietnamese units are also reported by Cambodian resistance forces and Thai intelligence to be staged inside Cambodia near the Laos and Vietnam borders. From these positions they were reportedly directly involvedin the late February offensive against the Cambodian town of Svay Check, held by non-communist forces. It is also worth remembering that an estimated 500,000 to 1 million ethnic Vietnamese "settlers" have colonized large, and productive, areas of eastern and northern Cambodia. Perhaps most ominously, Vietnamese cadres act as a network of top-level military and political advisors to their puppet government in Phnom Penh. (including the use of tanks, artillery and "Stalin Organ" rockets)

The Phnom Penh regime, which calls itself the State of Cambodia (PRK), is controlled by the communist People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP). It is of enormous significance that the PRP is led by a cluster of former Khmer Rouge leaders Heng Samrin (Chief of State), Hun Sen (Prime Minister), Chea Sim (National Assembly leader), Sin Song (Interior Minister) and Gen. Pol Saroeun (chief of the Armed Forces). Although some non-Party members hold ministerial positions, the regime is seen by most Cambodians as tainted by its leader’s former Khmer Rouge connection, as traitorous accomplices in Vietnam’s occupation and as being rife with corruption. For this reason there has been little public enthusiasm in Cambodia for the PRK’s proposal that elections be conducted under the regime’s own administration.

The Cambodian resistance forces confront well-supplied Vietnamese/Phnom Penh forces and are, themselves, divided. In the absence of adequate military supplies from the West, the two non-communist factions of the resistance have been compelled to seek aid from China and to join an unpalatable tripartite arrangement known as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK).

This coalition is comprised of the communist Khmer Rouge, supported by China and consisting of some 40,000 fighters led by Pol Pot. Also in the coalition is the Sihanoukist National Army (ANS) of some 18,000 troops loyal to Prince Sihanouk and led by his son Prince Ranariddh. The third group is the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPLNF) of some 15,000 troops led politically by Son Sann and militarily by General Sak Sutsakhan. It is this coalition which is recognized by the United Nations as the legitimate government of Cambodia.

The Immediate Future in Cambodia

The current battles around Svay Check — which are part of an offensive by the PRK seemingly aimed specifically at destroying the non-communist opposition — and the emerging diplomatic developments suggest that the next few months will be critical to the prospects for self-determination and peace in Cambodia. The resistance forces (both those of the Khmer Rouge and those of the non-communist elements) have recently made significant gains in northwestern Cambodia and seek to expand eastward and southward. If the non-communists are to provide a viable alternative in any future elections to the communist factions (either those under the flag of the well-equipped Khmer Rouge or those of the erstwhile Khmer Rougist regime in Phnom Penh), however, they must receive military assistance during the period of transition to a strong United Nations presence.

Clearly, as such a U.N. presence is established, and as Chinese support of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese aid to the Phnom Penh regime are substantially reduced, the non-communist Resistance forces will increasingly seek to distance themselves from the Khmer Rouge leadership. In turn, much of Cambodia’s population is likely to coalesce behind Prince Sihanouk as the most respected national leader and as a pivotal figure of the transitional National Council called for by the U.N. peace plan. Whether or not Sihanouk (who reportedly recently returned to Cambodia) remains head of the resistance coalition forces, he remains a critical factor in any Cambodian political solution.

For the foreseeable future, the future of Cambodia will lie with those who enjoy the support of the inhabitants of its countryside — where 85% of the population resides. If outside communist aid can be cut off and if a National Council and attendant United Nations presence can be effectively established, there is a real possibility that a non-communist government can win a popular mandate.

Such a scenario requires, however, that the United Nations effort be properly structured and rigorously executed. It also necessitates that the non-communist parties secure adequate support from democratic nations — especially the United States, not unlike that accorded the effort to grant self-determination to Namibia. Only if these requirements are satisfied can there be a real prospect of effecting the permanent removal of foreign forces (both Vietnamese and Soviet) from Cambodia and of creating a genuine and peaceful democracy in that unhappy nation.

A Recommended Policy Approach for the United States

The United States should now follow a dual-track approach in its Cambodia policy. First, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and leader of the Western democracies, the United States must press the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and others to support multilateral efforts to establish an effective interim U.N. administration in Cambodia capable of overseeing a cease-fire and of preparing for free elections at local and national levels.

Second, on a bilateral basis, the United States should immediately step up humanitarian assistance and training programs to prepare non-communist parties to begin reconstruction and to become a strong electoral alternative to both the Phnom Penh Communists and the Khmer Rouge. Specifically, the United States should undertake the following actions:

  1. Multilateral support of a United Nations program featuring:
    • A U.N. peacekeeping force to verify the withdrawal of the all foreign forces, disarm the warring factions and provide security for peaceful nation-building efforts. This will require some 25,000 troops drawn from neutral nations, as well as perhaps 1,000 Cambodian translators fluent in English or French.

    • A U.N. civil administration to support national ministries in Phnom Penh as well in 20 provinces and 120 districts. Such an organization is required to coordinate the work of international and private agencies involved in reconstruction and will require some 1,500 U.N. personnel, as well as an equal number of Cambodian translators.

    • Training staff support for the U.N. presence should include training in English for Cambodians currently in refugee camps to serve as translators, and recruiting and training of Cambodian-Americans and others to assist U.N. civil administration.

    • Funding support. While encouraging follow-through on Japan’s offer to pay a substantial part of the estimated $3 billion to finance the above U.N. efforts, the United States should contribute its own fair share to the costs of such U.N. machinery and use its influence with other nations to do the same.

    • The creation of a National Council as a key instrument of political reconciliation. The interim National Council (comprised of representatives from the four rival factions and some neutralists and located centrally in Phnom Penh) should be staffed with teams at province and district capitals charged with consulting with and facilitating the work of the U.N. administration.

    • Such a Council is essential if the non-communists are to have a chance to obtain the attendant political benefits as conditions are seen to improve thanks to peace-keeping and reconstruction efforts during the period prior to when local and national elections are held. This function will require some 3,000 non-communist personnel trained in administration.


  3. U.S. support of Cambodian non-communists to include:
    • The United States should also support the recommendation of the non-communist leaders, Son Sann and Prince Sihanouk, that Cambodia’s U.N. seat be awarded to a delegation comprised of representatives of all factions until national elections have taken place. China recently suggested a willingness to adopt a more flexible position on this point by agreeing that the Khmer Rouge flag, country name and anthem at the UN be replaced by those of pre-1970 Cambodia.

    • U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) programs funded by the "Solarz Amendment" that provide refugee assistance and train teachers and civil administrators in the non-communist refugee camps should be expanded. The original FY 1990 Solarz program funding of $7 million — recently cut by $2 million — should be restored and increased. Additional provisions should be added to this program to provide translator training in the refugee camps and advanced administrative training in the United States.

    • U.S. AID civic action programs can substantially help the non-communist parties establish credibility at the village level. In furtherance of this goal, the Solarz legislation language that authorizes AID to provide humanitarian assistance to the non-communist resistance forces should be broadened to include civilians. AID training of teachers, medical teams and civil affairs cadres should also be greatly expanded.

    • The United States should insist that the 300,000 Cambodian refugees in Thailand are not returned to Cambodia until after a U.N. peacekeeping force is in place. Refugees should be allowed to be reintegrated into their home towns, or into communities of their choice, where land and housing opportunities are available.

    • The United States should reject the recent Vietnamese/Phnom Penh proposal to create a "parallel administration" that would effectively divide the country in two during the U.N. administration period preceding elections. Instead, soon after refugee resettlement has taken place, elections by secret ballot should be held for village chiefs and comparable local leadership positions under U.N. and National Council supervision. In turn, national elections should take place 24-36 months later, following verification of complete withdrawal of all Vietnamese personnel, disarmament, an adequate campaign period that includes a census.

    • It is particularly important to note that the United States can help support viable non-communist political parties for future elections by sending Cambodian-American instructors to the refugee camps to teach the fundamentals of democracy. Organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy should also become involved in training programs.

The struggle to achieve true peace and democracy in Cambodia will not be easy. But the opportunity presented by recent events can be realized if the United States makes it clear to the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam that any failure to fulfill the United Nations agreement in full will be a serious obstacle to improved bilateral relations, and if the United States works with the U.N. and Cambodia’s non-communist parties to provide material and political support. Moral, materiel and humanitarian support such as that called for in the foregoing approach can end Cambodia’s suffering, lessen tensions in the region and further expand the worldwide democratic revolution.

1. This paper has greatly benefited from the expertise of Al Santoli, a member of the Center’s Board and the author of numerous articles on Indochina and of two histories on the Indochina war. Mr. Santoli has testified before the Congress and recently undertook a fact-finding visit to areas of Cambodia liberated by the non-communist forces. The Center for Security Policy has also addressed the need for creative U.S. approaches to the conflict in Cambodia in Designing a U.S. Policy Toward Cambodia (No. 89-24) released on 12 May 1989, and A New U.S. Policy Toward Cambodia: A Commitment to a Democratic Process (No. 89-31) released 12 June 1989.

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