Khmer Rouge still a major threat

Issue 

There is renewed focus on Cambodia as that country marks the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Khmer Rouge regime, which between 1975 and 1979 resulted in the deaths of 1-2 million of the country's 7-8 million people. Dr HELEN JARVIS is a frequent visitor to Cambodia and a member of the executive of the Campaign to Oppose the Return of the Khmer Rouge (CORKR) — Australia. She is also the consultant on documentation for the Cambodia Genocide Program at Yale University, which is conducting research and documentation for possible use in any trials of the Khmer Rouge leadership. She was interviewed for Green Left Weekly by ALLEN MYERS.

There were stories in the establishment media last week about an attack on the Cambodia Genocide Program and its director, Ben Kiernan, by another academic, Stephen Morris, who questioned the ability of Kiernan to carry it out. Can you tell us what this is about?

The program is funded under an act passed by the US Congress following years of campaigning for it by CORKR in the US. Stephen Morris was a strong opponent of the lifting of the US embargo on Vietnam. His attack clearly arises from his virulent anti-Vietnamese government perspective, and therefore his hostility to the Cambodian People's Party government of Hun Sen, which was established with Vietnamese support in 1979.

Kiernan called for the recognition of that government by the United Nations and Western governments.

Ben Kiernan is unquestionably one of the world's foremost scholars on Cambodia, and has done more than any other to document and understand the KR regime and its crimes.

Sixteen years after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power by Cambodian rebels and Vietnamese troops, why are they still a danger?

They have had 16 years of support from outside the country. The United Nations continued to recognise the KR as the government of Cambodia right through the '80s, and nearly all its "humanitarian assistance" went to refugees in Thailand — who were largely under the control of the Khmer Rouge.

The Thai military facilitated — and continues to do so to this day — KR military assaults into Cambodia. It provides sanctuaries to KR leaders and troops, bank accounts, transit for supplies, hospital facilities. At times the KR radio is also operated from within Thailand.

China bankrolled the KR from 1979 and also supplied weapons, including tanks, which were shipped through Thailand.

The Pol Pot forces were also aided and abetted on the border and given the fig leaf of respectability by Sihanouk and other opposition forces, who were so anti-Vietnamese they were prepared to cooperate even with the KR to overthrow the Hun Sen government.

There was also military supplies and training from the US and UK to the opposition — supposedly to the non-KR forces, but all their military operations were carried out in conjunction with the KR.

How serious is the KR threat today?

It's hard to know what their numbers are today. They were clearly advantaged by the UN peace process, which recognised them as a legitimate party and, more importantly, was designed to dismantle the Cambodian People's Party government and military, which until then had largely confined the KR to the border areas with Thailand. Meanwhile, the KR did not carry out any of their obligations under the peace accord they signed, but took advantage of the opportunity to extend their operations — more than doubling their territory and displacing hundreds of thousands of people.

Following the May 1993 election, the new coalition government (including former KR allies) had to rebuild an army out of previously hostile forces. It also had to grapple with the huge social dislocation caused by continuing KR attacks and by the economic and social fallout from 20,000 UN personnel in the country for 18 months before the election.

Last July, the National Assembly finally outlawed the KR and closed their office in Phnom Penh — contrary to the advice of King Sihanouk and Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans. The law included an amnesty for KR members who defected within six months, and as a result of this and government offensives in some areas, the government appeared to make significant headway in the second half of 1994 in the south and in the north-west. There were 7000-8000 defectors from the KR during that time.

But in the last few months, the KR appear to have been concentrating their forces in Battambang province, displacing tens of thousands of people, many of whom had only recently returned from refugee camps in Thailand.

How capable is the government of coping with the threat?

The actual number of KR troops probably isn't important as the relative weakness of the government, compared to the previous government.

There are huge social problems: hundreds of thousands of internal refugees, an estimated 4 million mines scattered throughout the country, roads that haven't been maintained for a quarter of a century and which have suffered repeated war damage, the deliberate destruction of education and "human infrastructure" during the KR period, both flood and drought in the last year.

People suffering under these sorts of conditions can lose their will to resist the KR — having little confidence that the government can help them or protect them. Furthermore, there's a whole younger generation which can't recall the KR period.

The KR obviously think there are advantages they can reap from appalling social conditions, so they force villagers to become refugees and burn down hospitals and schools that have been rebuilt in recent years.

This is why it's important for the developed countries to provide significant aid for economic and social development. The US$3 billion spent on the UN-run elections would have been many times more effective devoted to rebuilding the country's shattered infrastructure. As both co-prime ministers Hun Sen and Ranariddh have stressed, development is the principal weapon with which to defeat the KR.

Along with that, of course, it's necessary to cut the KR lifeline and bring them to trial. They are still kept flush with funds by exporting plundered gems and timber through Thailand. The Thai military should stop assisting the KR leaders and arrest them so that they can be tried for crimes against humanity.

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