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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Behind the Peace Agreement in Cambodia

Ben Kiernan, History Department, Yale University

Three factors explain the recent acceleration of the Cambodian peace negotiations. A long-term factor was the world's continuing isolation of the Phnom Penh regime. Since the Vietnamese overthrow of Pol Pot's genocidal Khmer Rouge in 1979, the UN has embargoed Cambodia, trapping its people in poverty and threatening the economy with strangulation. The USA, Australia and all other Western nations refused aid, trade and diplomatic relations with the only anti-genocidal Cambodian political force, while aiding its enemies. It was clear this policy would continue until the Khmer Rouge were brought back into the Cambodian political arena.

A second, more im&$¬factor was the realization that despite this, the State of Cambodia government of President Hen Samrin and Prime Minister Hun Sen had the upper hand on the battlefield. The Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge were not making headway, nor were their US-backed allies.

Two years after the 1989 Vietnamese withdrawal, all 30 Cambodian provincial capitals and all but two of 100 district towns, remain in Phnom Penh's hands. So do all the lowland rice-growing areas: over 90% of Cambodia's territory and population. The failure of the opposition offensive revealed Hanoi's achievement. Starting from scratch in 1979, and despite an international embargo of both countries, Viet Nam had not only helped establish a Cambodian government and return the nation to near normalcy, but also trained and armed a Cambodian force to defend the country from the Khmer Rouge.

The Bangkok Post of 2 April 1991 quoted Thai military sources as saying that "the Khmer Rouge seem to be suffering far more than the Heng Samrin side since the dry season offensive began" in January. On 20 May Post columnist Jacques Bekaert probed "the resistance's present weakness": "Hun Sen was probably right when he told us... that it is impossible for the resistance to conduct large-scale operations in the country, much less to launch vast offensives." The Khmer Rouge, he wrote, "still cannot occupy and maintain large tracts of territory."

Their allies fared little better. On 31 August Bekaert wrote that the rightist KPNLF was "fast collapsing": "Military experts say that maybe no more than a few hundred men still obey orders. The Sihanoukists... have their own troubles and probably no more than a few thousand menat beststill under control."

The Khmer Rouge acted ominously. At a Thai border meeting reported in the Bangkok Post on 17 May, a Khmer Rouge official tried to present a moderate face, but suddenly "beat a retreat with his aides" when a second cadre arrived, "dressed in Chinese khaki army fatigues." This cadres, a "hardliner," "spoke forcefully and with obvious authority," predicting: "When there are no more Vietnamese in Cambodia, we will take the rich people to work in the fields." He added: "Mr. Pol Pot did not have bad ideas and wanted equality for everyone. There was no poverty and all were equal until the Vietnamese came and tried to grab our land."

As the peace agreement approached, a Spanish aid worker was shot three miles from the UN refugee camp in northeast Thailand known as O'Trao, controlled by Khmer Rouge guerrillas. The attackers "spoke Cambodian and wore Khmer Rouge uniforms." "It was the most serious attack on a Western aid worker in 12 years of international relief work on the border," Reuters reported.

Then on 30 September came the "coup d'etat" in Site 8, the showcase Khmer Rouge camp in Thailand. The 20 "moderate" camp leaders disappeared into a prison at Khao Din, a Khmer Rouge zone inside Cambodia. Five new Khmer Rouge military officers instructed the families of the disappeared to follow. They refused, but the changeover spread "panic" among the 44,000 refugees in the camp, who fear a forcible repatriation to Khmer Rouge zones where they face mines, malaria, and lack of rice and medicine. "This has struck the fear of God into them, like it's back to the old days," said a UN official. The UN-trained civilian police force in Site 8 was also replaced by armed Khmer Rouge soldiers. The UN received "similar reports that pressure is being exerted on the population of the O'Trao camp." At the UN on October 17, after a Chinese veto, the Security Council's Perm-5 members (the USA, the USSR, China, Britain and France) backed down from a commitment to warn the Khmer Rouge against forcibly moving refugees.

The third major ingredient in the Cambodian peace process was China's achievement of its strategic goals in countries neighboring Cambodia, allowing Beijing to capitalize on its predominance in mainland Southeast Asia to ensure the Khmer Rouge and their allies a share in Cambodia's political future despite their comparative military weakness.

China's goals in Southeast Asia have long centered on its rivalry with Viet Nam. Shunned by the United States, and abandoned by the USSR, Hanoi has recently been forced to turn to China. At the Seventh Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party in June 1991, Hanoi acceded to China's demand for the head of reformist Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach. Hanoi was finally prepared to remove him because of his inability to deliver the needed diplomatic reconciliation with the USA. The USA had continually spurned Vietnamese overtures and concessions such as the Cambodian withdrawal, and Beijing reaped the reward.

Soviet aid to Viet Nam had also been drastically reduced. The August coup attempt in Moscow, weakening the position of Gorbachev's reform communists, was also a blow to their counterparts in Viet Nam, overruled by hardliners who now saw China's communists as a necessary ally. China's relations with Viet Nam, and with Laos, have been patched up by the military.

The February 1991 coup in Thailand against the elected Chatichai government was welcomed by China as "correct and just." China has developed a close relationship with the Thai army in a decade of international aid to the Khmer Rouge via Thailand.

In April the new strongman in Bangkok, Army Commander Suchinda Krapayoon, told a US senator that he considered Pol Pot a "nice guy," just as in 1985 the Foreign Minister of the previous dictatorship had described Pol Pot's deputy. Son Sen, as "a very good man." Last May the new Thai PM, Anand Panyarachum, pointedly told Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan: "Sixteen years ago, I was also accused of being a communist and now they have picked me as Prime Minister. In any society there are always hard-liners and soft-liners, and society changes its attitude to them as time passes by." Pol Pot himself met with Suchinda just before the June 1991 Cambodian negotiating session in Thailand, where Pol Pot played a backroom role.

With arms purchases of US $283 million in 1985-89, Bangkok ranked sixth among China's clients for major weapons. Burma, the other state quick to recognize the overthrow of Thai democracy, is also high on the list of China's arms customers. Burmese dictator General Saw Maung visited Beijing in August. The Far Eastern Economic Review reports that China has become "Burma's most important trade partner," while Burma is "China's chief foreign market for cheap consumer goods."

China has abandoned its former "party-to-party" relations with Southeast Asian insurgents, for army-to-army relations with governments. Beijing is in a stronger geopolitical position than ever before. Its main rival is Tokyo. Japan's role in the Cambodian peace process in 1990-91 at times threatened to sideline the Khmer Rouge. China's new, flexible posture aims to prevent that, and to broker the negotiations itself.

This interplay of factors has forced some departures from the 1990 UN Perm-5 Peace Plan for Cambodia. Firstly, a ceasefire was observed by all non-Khmer Rouge forces from 1 May, defying US opposition to such a step-by -step approach. Secondly, instead of being totally demobilized, the Phnom Penh army has been allowed to retain its relative numerical predominance with the agreement to demobilize 70% of each army. However, this does not include Khmer Rouge troops and arms caches hidden from UN view in remote areas.

The comprehensive voting system for the 1993 elections, to be based on proportional representation in each of 20 provinces, will make it harder for the Khmer Rouge to win seats in the new National Assembly than the national proportional system originally planned. But there is little sign of UN preparedness to effectively monitor the campaign in remote areas controlled by the Khmer Rouge, to prevent intimidation of voters and stuffing of ballot boxes. The Khmer Rouge could win at least some seats, and regain a role in Cambodia's government if their allies emerge with a plurality.

Further, Hun Sen was obliged to drop his demand that the peace agreement provide for a genocide trial of the Pol Pot leadership. And the UN legitimized the Khmer Rouge as a political force, allowing it to establish an office in Phnom Penh and to appoint the onetime President and Deputy Prime Minister of the Pol Pot regime (Khieu Samphan and Son Sen) as members of the Supreme National Council, which embodies Cambodian sovereignty. The country faces several more years of living dangerously.

Ben Kiernan is author of How Pol Pot Came to Power (1985).

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