Search form

Login - Register | FOLLOW US ON

Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khmer Rouge conundrum: options and outlook

Khmer Rouge conundrum: options and outlook

S olving the problem of the Khmer Rouge is not the most pressing problem that the

new Cambodian government faces. It is, however, the most important.


and how the problem of the Khmer Rouge will be solved cannot be predicted. But

it is not too difficult to specify the boundaries within which a solution must

emerge, and within which current negotiations are necessarily


The political context in which these negotiations occur

includes the credibility of the threat of war, the possibility and advantages of

more stringent international isolation, the obstacles or benefits that the

foreign policies of other countries offer the parties to the negotiations, the

potential benefit of political co-optation and the impact of factionalization

within the government. Though one cannot say with any assurance how the Khmer

Rouge problem will be solved, one can specify fairly clearly the boundaries

within which a solution will emerge.

Looking at the problem in this way

indicates that the range of possible outcomes is quite narrow. The extent of the

vulnerability of the Khmer Rouge is fairly clear. But KR vulnerability does not

mean that a solution is just around the corner-whatever the solution is, it will

neither be quickly found nor implemented. For the current government, the

balance of political power is in its favor at present, but the outcome of

negotiations may depend decisively on how internal divisions between the two

major parties are resolved.

Why not just ignore the


It could be argued that with more pressing and immediate

problems-such as improving national infrastructure, fostering foreign

investment, and reducing insecurity-the Cambodian government can afford to

ignore the Khmer Rouge.

However, the DK cannot be ignored forever. No

government can tolerate an independent military force on its territory. The DK

army is a constant reminder of the Royal Kingdom's lack of sovereignty. There

can only be one Cambodian government. It must have unimpeded access to all of

its territories; it must be able to constrain their exploitation and the

revenues that they generate within a national law and plan of


While extension of sovereignty to all parts of Cambodia and

integration of all armed forces in Cambodia is the only rational goal for the

government, room for maneuver exits.

There is nothing in the current

situation that dictates that this goal has to be achieved this month or this

year. In fact the government has the latitude to pursue a longer term strategy.

Military realities indicate that the government has little choice but to be


Threat of War:


The new government cannot destroy the Khmer

Rouge-at least not in a single organized military campaign. Furthermore, the

government does not have the capacity to hold terrain wrested from Khmer Rouge

control. The areas taken in the August campaign in Kompong Thom have more

recently reverted to DK control. As diplomatic and military observers have put

it: "no one in Cambodia has the capacity to permanently alter the military


The DK are incapable of conquering the country. As the

government considers what offers to make or to reject, it need not take this

possibility into account.

However the two sides are not militarily

stalemated. Two military threats are relevant to the negotiations, one immediate

and one longer term. The DK have a proven capacity to wage low-level campaigns

of terror any time they choose. For example, they recently blew up ten bridges

in Kompong Thom. More of the same is the immediate threat. The Cambodian

government cannot completely ignore this threat because DK terror can hamper

government operations, and scare away international investors.


violence against the government and Cambodian people may back-fire. The

Cambodian people will not appreciate having a war waged on them in order to

threaten a government that they consider legitimate. Of course, if the current

government turns into a perceived oppressor, the DK may be seen as liberators,

causing political and then military power to shift in their


The longer term threat is one that the DK must take seriously.

The operations that the Cambodian Army has been conducting may not yet result in

the permanent retention of terrain, but they have weakened the DK by prompting

defections and causing casualties. With no evidence that the DK are winning or

drafting new adherents to their cause, both consequences are bad news for the

radical faction.

If the Khmer Rouge get into a war of attrition with the

Cambodian government, they will surely lose. But defections are the greater

immediate threat to the DK.

As more of its low level fighters are drawn

off, the Khmer Rouge will become more and more vulnerable to a military

offensive to finish them off.

In the interim, the DK are threatened by a

governmental limited aims strategy. Its initial objective would be simply to

maintain pressure on the Khmer Rouge and take opportunistic advantage of evident

weakness in order to slowly reduce the territory that the DK controls. But an

important constraint favors the DK. The Cambodian army may not have the

logistical capability to sustain such an effort. Seasonal withdrawals are not

consistent with the aim of keeping constant pressure on the Khmer Rouge. And it

seems unlikely that such a strategy can be pushed to completion in one dry

season. Thus the DK strategy can focus on surviving from one rainy season to the


If the Khmer Rouge are not now vulnerable to a military "knock-out"

blow, as defections take their toll, they will be militarily weakened.

Get the DK out of the Jungle


threat that the DK face is that the government will maintain military pressure,

and at the same time pursue strategies that aim to pull DK fighters and

low-level cadre out of the jungle.

The relevant constraint is the

government's ability to pull off such programs. If amnesties, for example, are

attempted, they must be smart and honest. They should be smart so that DK

fighters cannot just take advantage of the program and then return to the


Offers of amnesties must also be honest. Those who ask for

amnesty must be treated fairly. The government will have to make an honest

commitment to integrating the defectors into the Cambodian army or civilian

economy and society. These guys may need only the reasons that an amnesty

program would offer to leave the DK, but they will also need reasons to remain


Military successes against the DK and government moves that create

the impression of reductions in DK power may be not be enough in themselves to

accomplish this.

However, as the DK weakens over-all, more and more

fighters may come out of the jungle on their own. A growing economy, peace and

the avoidance of direct confrontation by the government may well be the most

effective long term policy for drawing low level fighters from the


The success of such a long-term strategy depends on two things.

First, and most importantly the possibility of the isolation of the DK, and

second, the extent of current DK stock-piles of weapons and cash


Advantage: stringent


Any policy that sincerely attempts to weaken the DK

in the long term will depend on isolating the DK. That in turn depends on

cutting off both domestic and international economic and military support. The

most important external backers of the DK are the Thai military. If isolation is

to work, the Thai government policy of no longer supporting the DK must operate

at all levels of Thai military and among Thai business. If as one analyst put

it, Thai support of the DK has shifted from "being a publicly denied but

official policy to simple black-market operations," that is to the good. But

indications are contradictory, as the recently exposed weapons storage site,

complete with Khmer guards, shows.

Second in importance is the

possibility of isolating the DK from supporters within Cambodia. Many military

observers during the UN mandate pointed out that the relationship among the

factions after the Paris Peace Agreements was more economic than ideological.

There were many confirmed reports of business deals that cut across factional

areas, involving the sale of timber, petrol, and cashews. The Khmer Rouge are

more likely to survive the easier it is for them to sustain themselves by

cutting deals with Cambodians willing to supply them. Here an operating

constraint is the money that the DK have accumulated in Thai banks. If the

Cambodian government could work with the Thai government to separate the DK from

their cash, isolation would produce quicker results.

Press and Public Opinion

Compared to most Western

governments, the Cambodian government has a great deal of latitude to deal with

the Khmer Rouge. For example, an American government would be under much greater

pressure from the press and public opinion under similar


However those in power in Cambodia are not completely

unconstrained by the attitudes of the Cambodian people. As one Minister put it

recently, the "Cambodian people do not want war."

That assertion is

ambiguous. Perhaps, the Cambodian people are sick and tired of war and want

peace-at any price. Many Cambodians see war against the DK as Khmer against

Khmer, and may prefer a political resolution to any war. But the fact that the

current offensive has not raised an outcry seems to indicate that the Cambodian

people do not want prolonged war, but they might be willing to stomach easily

imaginable shorter wars.



The war-weariness of the Cambodian people and the

operational and logistical weaknesses of the Cambodian Army are not the only

constraints against playing a military card. Any major military campaign will

produce waves of refugees; internal refugees will place pressure on the

Cambodian society and economy. Refugees that flow across the border will create

regional instabilities.

Constitution & Cabinet


An oft-repeated request of the DK leadership is for

a fraction of executive power; "15% of the Ministries" was a recent demand. One

might ask five questions: Will giving in to such a request create results that

are best for the people of Cambodia? Is giving in necessary in light of the fact

of the relative weakness of the Khmer Rouge and their specific vulnerabilities?

How strong are the constraints that are most often pointed to by opponents of

accepting high level Khmer Rouge cadre into the government: to wit, the stated

policy of the United States and the Cambodian constitution? Finally, will an

offer of Ministerial positions be enough to achieve the government's long-term

end? In other words will the DK be willing to turn over its territory and armies

to the Royal government in a simple quid pro quo? It is clearly impossible to

answer these questions with any certainty, but there is a prior, perhaps more

important question which we can answer with some confidence: Why should we

believe that the DK would ever give up their army or their territories in any


What would protect any of the DK, once they leave the jungle? With

no independent power base, they would be easy prey for those who plot their

elimination. The power of the CPP arises from its continued dominance of

Cambodian administrative structures. The power of FUNCINPEC comes from the

international recognition that they have gained for their plurality in the

recent elections.

Without a power base, and without international

recognition, how long will the DK last in Cambodian politics? If it is not

rational for the DK to give up their territories and army, no matter what the

government offers, it is unlikely that reconciliation which includes the offer

of ministries would result in real territorial and military amalgamation. Thus,

the government is left to contend with the DK as a long-term problem or, to

enter into a paper agreement that allows the DK to retain an independent power

base as insurance against a shift in political winds in Phnom Penh.

Govt Unity, KR Policy

If the government is unified

around a single policy, whatever it may be, that is advantageous. But if the

survival or hegemony of any party is perceived to be at stake, Cambodian policy

toward the DK might be constrained by power struggles inside the


If, for example, Prince Rana-riddh's recent question about

the constitutionality of the offer of Ministry positions to the DK was a move to

buttress the power of FUNC-INPEC in this government, that would only work if the

Khmer Rouge entered the government with a secure power base. The language of

national reconciliation would be a cover for continued Khmer Rouge control of

its own territories. Military amalgamation of their army might turn out to be

only a paper agreement.

On the other side, if the CPP were to see the

inclusion of DK in any capacity into the Cambodian political main-stream as a

threat, then they must be committed to their destruction. How internal

differences like this are resolved is probably the most important constraint of




Please, login or register to post a comment

Latest Video

Cambodia's last tile masters: Why a local craft is under threat

Brought over by the French, painted cement tile making has been incorporated into Cambodian design for more than a century, even as the industry has died out in Europe.

Interview: Loung Ung, author of First They Killed My Father

The story of Loung Ung and her family’s suffering under the Khmer Rouge became known around the world with the success of her autobiographical book, First They Killed My Father.

Setting up a drone for flight. Photo supplied

How Cambodia's first drone company is helping farmers

SM Waypoint claims its unmanned aerial vehicles can help local farm and plantation owners increase their yields.