Everyone seems to agree: the Khmer Rouge are finished, or are they? It is well to
recall that Cambodia is covered with the graves of those who underestimated Pol Pot
and the Khmer Rouge (KR).
Nonetheless, the majority view is that the danger has passed, Prince Sihanouk called
the elections "an historic defeat" for the KR In the U.S., Secretary of
State Warren Christopher termed the elections "the triumph of democracy,"
and Assistant Secretary Winston Lord opines that the KR are now "manageable,"
Clinton administration intelligence officials are giving background briefings with
the message, "The Khmer Rouge are in disarray" Mr. Twining mocks them:
"I hope they like the forest."
Perhaps the most systematic exposition of this view to appear in public was Nate
Thayer's recent piece in the pages of this paper, titled "Whither the Khmer
Rouge?" Thayer argues the KR are isolated and vulnerable, "with no allies
they can rely on for the first time since 1970." They are "incapable of
remobilizing an army" and consequently unable to "seize control of more
territory." Abandoned by their FUNCINPEC allies as a liability, they "may
find themselves the target of an internationally supported military campaign to destroy
As the subhead of Thayer's piece proclaims, it sounds like the end for the K.R. And
perhaps this is exactly as Pol Pot wishes to be perceived at the present time. Nearly
3,000 years ago, the Chinese General Sun Tzu wrote in his classic treatise, The Art
of War, "All warfare is based on deception."
After all, as Thayer himself points out, the Khmer Rouge retain significant strengths.
"Their organization remains essentially intact...and they have sufficient 'popular
strength' to sustain them.'' '' They have competent administration and military"
in an "autonomous zone of control" covering at least one-fifth of the country.
These zones include "areas rich in rice, gems, timber and safe supply lines
to willing commercial partners." Moreover, their armed forces have recently
grown, and have received new weapons from Thai generals, as confirmed by U.S., U.N.
and other intelligence sources.
Compare this to their situation of utter defeat, isolation and exile in 1979-1980,
and one can argue that the Khmer Rouge have actually made excellent progress. Yet
the wise general deceives. As Sun Tzu says, "Pretend inferiority and encourage
his arrogance." But this is not all. Pol Pot is a political strategist par excellence.
If Pol Pot had relied on the military strength of his party alone, he would never
have come to power in the first place. The Khmer Rouge originally gained power in
1975 by forming a united front with the overthrown god-king Norodom Sihanouk, thus
winning the allegiance of Cambodia's peasants. The identity of the Khmer Rouge leaders
and the existence of their communist party were kept absolutely secret. The Khmer
Rouge then systematically liquidated royalist politicians and soldiers until Pol
Pot had secured undisputed control.
This time around, Pol Pot decided to stick with a winning strategy. After the overthrow
of his murderous regime by Vietnam in 1979, Pol Pot declared that his communist party
had been dissolved, he was retiring from politics to become a school teacher, and
the Khmer Rouge were adopting capitalism. The Khmer Rouge then formed a united front
with Prince Sihanouk to make war on the Cambodian government. The scenario would
make a delightful farce were it not so predictable, and so lethal.
According to a defector, Pol Pot instructed Khmer Rouge military officers in 1988
that "The fruit remains the same; only the skin has changed." A captured
Khmer Rouge document dated Jan. 10, 1992, emphasizes, "We must concentrate first
on accelerating the infiltration of category one forces in order gradually to establish
in advance the pre-requisites" for the takeover of his hapless allies. Again,
the Khmer Rouge have been liquidating royalists in order to seize control of the
Prince Sihanouk remembers what the Khmer Rouge did to his National United Front in
the 1970s. Sihanouk resigned as leader of the royalists before the Paris treaty,
and now says, "There are Khmer Rouge who occupy important positions in FUNCINPEC.
They [have become] chiefs of bureaus, heads of provincial organizations. There are
apparently assassins among these Khmer Rouge."
As Khmer Rouge specialist Jacques Bekaert observes, "In the zones controlled
by the former resistance...everything is in the hands of the military and people
are executed almost every day for a variety of reasons." Bekaert adds, "A
large number of soldiers belonging to the FUNCINPEC or the KPNLF have vanished."
The Khmer Rouge military provides "security" in these so-called" non-communist
U.N. and other intelligence sources indicated that royalist military units have now
been assigned to logistics functions by the Khmer Rouge, FUNCINPEC units are responsible
for transporting ammunition and other military stores from their Thai military suppliers
to front line Khmer Rouge combat units. The fact that Pol Pot has entrusted the royalists
with such a crucial role indicates the Khmer Rouge have completed the task of establishing
operational control over significant portions of the royalist military command.
The few surviving FUNCINPEC commanders loyal to Cambodian royalty realized the untenability
of their position. Five of them defected to People's Party this year.
On the political front, the Khmer Rouge long ago adopted a "leopard spot"
strategy of infiltrating cadre into villages for clandestine political work. This
tactic has multiple objectives, including providing intelligence, propagandizing
the population, causing disarray in the enemy's rear areas, and infiltrating enemy
political organizations. Tens of thousands of people from KR camps in Thailand are
now dispersed across Cambodia; how many still work for the KR?
All this may account for the fact that the KR did not seriously disrupt the election,
as was widely predicted. Instead, they brought out their followers with instructions
to vote for FUNCINPEC. The tactic has been exceedingly successful. Respected specialists
on the Khmer Rouge such as Raoul Jennar and Ben Kiernan warn that the Khmer Rouge
tactic of infiltrating agents into allied and opposition parties alike-a tactic used
most effectively in the past-is most likely still in use by Pol Pot. How many officials
of FUNCINPEC, or for that matter the People's Party are Khmer Rouge agents?
Sun Tzu says, "To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill."
Perhaps the most significant strength of the Khmer Rouge is one that has escaped
all comment in the West. The greatest obstacle to a Khmer Rouge return to power has
been the State of Cambodia. That obstacle has been swept away, replaced by a weak
coalition government. The victorious FUNCINPEC is largely manned by personnel who
have been in exile for a quarter century, and have no experience in governing. The
division of power between the People's Party and FUNCINPEC is tenuous, at best. Such
a government is extremely vulnerable to subversion and black measures, Pol Pot's
For the last 18 months, the greatest threat to the KR has been the international
spotlight. Recently, Pol Pot has begun making nice noise toward the U.N., offering
to integrate his army, open his zones, and become a "simple party." He
might even stop attacking U.N. positions. Of course, such negotiations will take
time, and by then UNTAC will be gone. After UNTAC departs Cambodia, the issue will
quickly fade from international attention. Another successful peacekeeping mission.
As Sun Tzu says, "What is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy's
But let us not forget: the Khmer Rouge still maintain that there are three million
hereditary enemies in Cambodia to be exterminated. Promises by politicians like Australia's
Senator Evans that the international community would invade to beat back a second
Khmer Rouge attempt at genocide are laughable. Who would provide such troops? Australia?
France? The U.S.? Perhaps Japan? A brief look at domestic political conditions in
these states reveals the absurdity of such a claim.
So, where does the balance lie? Given the facts, what one might term the "Thayer
Thesis"-that the K.R. are finished-is certainly plausible. FUNCINPEC and the
KPNLF are now allied with the People's Party. Weapons shipments from China have been
reduced or eliminated. Soon, KR diplomat Thioun Prasith may even be forced out of
Cambodia's United Nations mission in New York. It could be the end for Pol Pot.
However, equally plausible is the contrary thesis, let's call it the "Sun Tzu
Thesis," that Pol Pot is better positioned today for a return to power than
at any time since 1979. The Vietnamese are gone. The "puppet regime" is
defeated, replaced by an unstable conglomeration. Pol Pot still has his army, and
still has highly placed friends in Thailand and China. He is wealthy. He has hugely
expanded his territory and population. He has deeply infiltrated the opposing parties,
and again has both overt and covert operatives in Phnom Penh. And he has convinced
most of the world that the Khmer Rouge threat is no more. Sun Tzu would be proud,
for, as he says in The Art of War, "He who lacks foresight and underestimates
his enemy will surely be captured by him."
- Dr. Craig Etcheson is Executive Director of the Campaign to Oppose the Return
of the Khmer Rouge..