Jon Ogden in Treng, Battambang finds that time may be running out for the rebels
THE dry season coincides with the main killing season in Cambodia and some analysts believe this year's fighting could be the most decisive since the Khmer Rouge dealt a death blow to Lon Nol's forces in 1975 and entered Phnom Penh.
However this time it is the guerrillas who are staring down the gun barrel, victims of a gradual geopolitical shift. "This could be history in the making in the next few months," said one well-informed source. However the last thing the guerrillas are likely to do is give up without a fight and this dry season could be one of the bloodiest as well as most significant in years.
The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces' (RCAF) last dry season campaign ended in disaster, with the capture of KR strongholds at Pailin and Anlong Veng being swiftly followed by embarrassing withdrawals.
But this dry season the military equation might well be different. The source, who has good connections on the border, said that Thai officials were at last bringing to heel Thai businessmen and elements of the military who have maintained their links with the guerrillas.
The crackdown has followed intense behind-the-scenes lobbying by Western governments, particularly the United States, Australia and Britain, said the source. Ironically these same governments supported the Khmer Rouge throughout the 80s as one of the "Resistance" factions. What was once a handy stick to clobber the Vietnamese with has now become the biggest source of regional instability and, with the hostage crises a political embarrassment back home.
"I've been told there's been a noticeable slow down in the trade. I don't know what big stick has been wielded in Bangkok, such as removal of Most Favored Nation status, but it is happening," he said.
Publicly Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans declared it "unacceptable" for the Khmer Rouge to be allowed to cross the Thai border at will and for Thai individuals to take forestry and gem concessions on Cambodian territory controlled by the rebels.
But after a diplomatic row lasting several days, Evans changed his tune on Nov 12 while at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation talks in Jakarta.
After "frank, most direct and encouraging" talks with new Thai Foreign Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Evans said he was now convinced that Thai authorities had made a recent concerted effort to shut off cross-border trading and movement by the Khmer Rouge.
In Phnom Penh, Thai Ambassador Sakthip Krairiksh was unable to confirm any recent new concrete action by border authorities.
But he said that contacts had told him that "activities were almost dead" at the Borei gem market in eastern Thailand, a traditional funnel for stones coming from Khmer Rouge zones.
Sakthip quoted from a May 4 order issued by Thai Supreme Commander Gen Wimol Wongwanich which expressly forbids soldiers from any contacts with the Khmer Rouge.
When asked whether he thought the elimination of the Khmer Rouge as a political and military force would be a positive step, Sakthip simply replied: "Yes"
He stressed that Bangkok was now fully committed to working with the Royal Government and insisted his government would act on evidence of Khmer Rouge crossing the border or of Thais assisting them.
"It would be stupid for us to support the Khmer Rouge, the whole word is watching us now," he said, adding: "We also don't like the Khmer Rouge, why should we help the Khmer Rouge."
By cutting Khmer Rouge supply lines, Thai authorities would virtually guarantee the end of the guerrillas as a viable mainstream military force capable of mounting large scale attacks. They would be left a without regular source for petrol, ammunition, food, medicine and other essential elements to keep a guerrilla force functioning.
While they might be able to obtain some supplies by buying them from corrupt elements in the RCAF, deliveries would be nowhere near as consistent.
The ultimate result is likely to be a military victory for the RCAF and the KR being marginalized and surviving only as isolated bandit groups in remote forest and hilly areas.
The Khmer Rouge leadership is likely to respond to this noose around its neck with a last desperate throw of the dice. The Thai crackdown also means the KR have to quickly move weapon and ammunitions caches across the border to far less secure positions on Cambodian soil, said the source. This makes a win-or-bust KR offensive even more likely.
"It's a case of use it or lose it," .said the source, who also linked the taking of Western hostages and the massacre of 50 Khmer civilians with the border crackdown.
"It's like backing a dog into a corner. When you do that it's going to get nasty," said the source.
He found it significant that the number of attack on villages in Battambang had dropped in the last few weeks and that guerrillas have been seen operating in larger than usual groups of 75 to 100 as if in preparation for a major offensive in Battambang, the traditional "frontline" state.
In addition, he said, villagers were being press-ganged into carrying ammunition for the rebels and building a road to speed up the movement of weapons and supplies to forward positions. Similar reports have emerged from Siem Reap province.
Another big factor which could weigh heavily against the rebels are eight MiG-21 fighter-bombers. Sources says they are being bought from China and revamped in Israel where they will be kitted out with modern avionics before joining the Cambodian airforce.
The KR are believed to already be digging in to face a new threat from the air. Previously they only had to contend with bombing and strafing runs by a couple of aging Russian helicopters.
Effective use of air power would add a new dimension to RCAF capabilities in the face of an all-out Khmer Rouge offensive, using tanks and large ground forces, such as the one that took them to within 15 km of Battambang last May.
There is as yet no suggestion that the RCAF are preparing to get the first punch in.
First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh ruled out another military adventure to Pailin in favor of winning over more KR defectors to the government banner.
This is despite Battambang's First Deputy Governor Serey Kosal saying of the dry season: "If we don't attack them [Khmer Rouge] they will attack us. We know them too well."
A trip by the Post along the perennial battleground of Route 10 between Battambang and Pailin found no evidence of a military build up, contradicting rumors that the RCAF has taken delivery of up to 100 tanks from Poland and deployed some of them in the northwest.
Around Treng, the RCAF's forward military base on Route 10, soldiers seemed in a relaxed but confident mood that they would be able to ward off anything the Khmer Rouge can throw at them. Enlisted men said they were being paid regularly, if only 30,000 riel ($11.50) a month with 15,000 riel ($5.75) food allowance.
Gen Sok Phun, deputy commander of Division 4, said that his men had already beaten back four Khmer Rouge assaults in as many months. Each consisted of 100-200 men, and was made on their frontal positions at Route 10. He said the RCAF had not suffered any casualties and those of the KR were impossible to estimate because of their policy of taking their dead and wounded with them.
Curiously each attack occurred on the 20th of the month at 4:30 am, to coincide with the full moon, said Gen Phun.
"We are well dug in, it is impossible for them to get past us. They don't have enough men," he said.
The formation of the RCAF threw together former enemies from the SOC regime with the resistance factions and it is only in the last few months they have really started functioning as a team, said Gen Phun. "We know each other well now and we can protect each others' backs," he said. Suspicion between former foes had been a factor in the RCAF's embarrassing flight along Route 10 in the face of the KR offensive last May.
His intelligence indicates the KR have around 200 men in forward positions on Route 10, backed by a 122mm field gun, three tanks, four D75 and four DK82 recoilless rifles and 120mm mortars.
Gen Phun refused to give figures for his own side. But two T-54 tanks were in evidence at Treng.
Some units had been withdrawn to take part in the assault on Phnom Vour in Kampot but are expected to return and bolster defenses.
During the wet season the two sides have engaged in small-scale artillery duels every three to four days.