Is time running out for the Khmer Rouge?


By Helen Jarvis

PHNOM PENH — "Time's up for the Khmer Rouge" was the title of a talk given by Tuon Chay, governor of Siem Reap, at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia on January 4.

Chay, who is running the program to seek defections in that province, knows his current enemy well. He was previously a lieutenant general in the Sihanoukist ANKI army, fighting together with the KR against the State of Cambodia.

Last July, the National Assembly outlawed the KR but offered a six-month amnesty to soldiers and officials who defected to the government. Chay reported that throughout the country in the last six months of 1994, some 8-9000 KR soldiers and another 3000 family members and supporters had defected. The pace picked up as the deadline drew closer; some 1200 defected in Siem Reap alone during the final two months.

Chay declared confidently that a 30-kilometre radius around Siem Reap town was now completely secure, and that "from next Wednesday it will be safe to visit Banteay Srei temple". Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case. The government made no official announcement about opening the much admired temple to the public, although adventurous or foolhardy tourists have long paid extra money to be allowed through the checkpoints, with or without an armed guard.

On January 15 a tourist convoy heading for Banteay Srei with police escort was attacked: two people were killed and one seriously injured. There were conflicting stories as to whether KR soldiers or bandits launched the attack.

That has certainly shaken people's confidence, as have a spate of recent acts of violence in several parts of the country, including another train ambush and tens of thousands of newly displaced people fleeing renewed fighting. But these incidents seem to be more about the KR lashing out as it is pushed further into a corner than evidence of a more powerful force threatening the country, as has been portrayed in the Australian press over recent weeks.

My assessment is that the tide has finally turned against the KR. The outlawing and amnesty program appears to have been extremely successful combined, as it has been, with major government military assaults on long-held KR territory. The Phnom Vour area in Kampot (where at least three separate kidnappings and murders of Westerners took place last year) has been declared secure, and the Phnom Kulen stronghold, north of Siem Reap town past Banteay Srei, was seized in early January.

Earlier attempts by the newly formed Royal Cambodian Armed Forces had proved disastrous. Military assaults on Pailin and Anlong Veng in early 1994 were quickly rebuffed by the KR, causing great loss of life and confidence. A number of 1993 defectors apparently soon slipped back to the KR, because they were not integrated into the community. Lessons seem to have been learned from these mistakes, and the government's current policies are far clearer and more effective.

While the Cambodian Peoples Party-FUNCINPEC coalition government appears to have steadily strengthened over its 18 months in power, political opposition to this alliance continues from within the ranks of FUNCINPEC and the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, whose leaders have repeatedly called on the king to step in and form a government of national unity, including the KR. This call is regularly echoed on KR radio.

King Sihanouk has recently returned to Cambodia after an eight-month stay in Beijing, where he is receiving cancer treatment. Reports indicate that he seems much fitter; his return to Beijing is anticipated in April. He has announced the intention of taking up residence in Siem Reap, but has not yet done so.

Sihanouk has retreated on his proposal to cremate the bones of the torture victims of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum after it aroused strong public opposition. Most people here insist that the evidence of KR atrocities should remain intact as long as that force still poses a threat. Further, such evidence may be crucial for any future trials of KR leaders.