Current boycott of Phase II an effort to buy time, build future political base
The Khmer Rouge's refusal to cooperate with key aspects of the Paris peace accord
has raised again the question of their sincerity in accepting a political solution
to end the Cambodian conflict or whether they indeed secretly seek a military solution
to seize unilateral power.
Following a long-term strategy outlined by Pol Pot and the senior leadership several
years ago, the Khmer Rouge are positioning themselves to take advantage of the peace
process, whether that effort succeeds or fails.
Internal documents of the Khmer Rouge-including a major speech by Pol Pot to cadre
obtained by the Phnom Penh Post-emphasize a stepped-up program to build their political
base throughout the country.
Simultaneously, however, they are aggressively pursuing independent financing, stockpiling
military equipment, and maintaining their armed forces intact in the event that they
are isolated from a political settlement and cut off from international support.
Since being overthrown by the Vietnamese invasion in late 1978, the Khmer Rouge have
rebuilt a strong, disciplined, and well-equipped military force that operates through
rear sanctuaries along the Thai border.
Organized primarily in small units, they have relied on guerrilla tactics to harass,
weaken, and demoralize their opponents-the Vietnamese-installed government of Prime
Minister Hun Sen-while at the same time attempting to build popular support in the
"A clarification here," Pol Pot told a gathering of cadre in late 1988,
"Our army is not going to defeat the enemy by fighting them. These days our
army goes into the interior to build up popular strength."
A transcript of the 68-page speech outlining the Khmer Rouge strategy for years to
come was obtained by the Phnom Penh Post.
"Previously our troops did not know how to conduct popular work because the
concrete fact was that they did not have any faith in the people, and instead relied
exclusively on bullets and other material things," Pol Pot said, referring to
the disastrous years in power in which hundreds of thousands died in a fanatical
experiment to create an agrarian utopia.
"We are now fashioning an army that knows how to do popular work."
All indications are that the Khmer Rouge are enjoying success in this strategy, gaining
more popular support as their opposition becomes increasingly corrupt and the economy
continues to deteriorate.
Since launching a protracted offensive after the official Vietnamese withdrawal in
late 1989, the Khmer Rouge have seized large tracts of areas in the northern and
western parts of Cambodia. Previously largely contained within their jungle sanctuaries
along the Thai border, they now operate in hundreds of villages, and in every province.
The Khmer Rouge, in documents handed over to the United Nations Transitional Authority
in Cambodia (UNTAC) as required by the Paris peace agreement, claim an official troop
strength of 27,500.
The accuracy of such figures are in dispute. The Cambodian People's Armed Forces-the
Hun Sen regime army-estimates that there are only 11,800 Khmer Rouge forces. U.N.
military intelligence officials in Phnom Penh say the Khmer Rouge claims are high,
and give a rough estimate of 17,500 men in the Khmer Rouge army, with 5,000 additional
forces capable of being formed into armed units if necessary.
Regardless, it's clear they have sufficient forces to carry out their program effectively,
given that their military activity is subordinate to their political objectives.
Their troops are organized into 25 divisions and two independent regiments with specific
areas of operation covering the entire country. Each military unit has senior political
officers who conduct extensive political propaganda to both cadre and villagers.
These political-military officers conduct underground work in areas under the nominal
control of the Hun Sen forces, as well as areas already under Khmer Rouge control.
The organization continues to be led by the exact same leaders who were the architects
of their disastrous years in power. Pol Pot remains in uncontested control of the
Decisions are made by a collective senior leadership that is estimated at about ten.
These include Khmer Rouge nominal leader President Khieu Samphan, Commander-in-Chief
of the army Son Sen, Nuon Chea, and key military leaders such as Ta Mok, the powerful
one-legged commander who controls the north of the country.
In addition, in a policy instituted by Pol Pot himself in 1986, the Khmer Rouge have
developed a new, younger generation of leadership, several of whom hold key positions
of power in the central "core group" collective leadership.
This younger generation of new faces has little disagreement with their elders, but
are not seen as tainted by the past. They are expected to assume significant leadership
roles in a new party that the Khmer Rouge will announce in the future.
Building a Popular Base
As early as 1988, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge launched efforts to create a self-sufficient
military organization in the event of a cutoff of international support.
"When in the days to come the country has been liberated [from the Vietnamese]
and there is peace, this will be the genesis of many new problems both domestically
and externally," Pol Pot told senior cadre. "The situation will be extremely
complex, and both the enemy and the rest of them will go all out to eliminate us."
"Once peace comes they will descend from everywhere, and even the biggest of
the cowards will come on strong. They will be arriving flush with capital in the
form of foreign money. These guys have international capitalist backing. How must
we fight in order to win? We must have strength. What kind of strength? Popular strength.
That is it in a nutshell," he said.
Senior Khmer Rouge officials accuse the western powers in UNTAC of propping up the
Phnom Penh regime and attempting to weaken and destroy the Khmer Rouge. They are
accurate that they are loathed by the international community and were only included
in the peace process because the western powers felt a real political solution would
be impossible without them.
Part of the Khmer Rouge blueprint for the future has been to create separate economic
trade zones that bring money into the organization without relying on Phnom Penh
and other areas not under their control. This enables them to maintain a dual economic
system while participating in the peace process.
To this end, they have created a network of roads extending from northern Cambodia
down to the Gulf of Thailand that allow for trade directly from their control zones
to Thailand. Through logging and gem mining, they currently add millions of dollars
a month to their coffers.
It is believed that the Chinese have cut off all military aid to the Khmer Rouge,
as required by the Paris peace accord.
In anticipation of that, the Khmer Rouge began stockpiling ammunition and weapons
several years ago in secret jungle caches throughout Cambodia. They are thought to
have stashed enough ammunition to last two to five years of continued warfare.
The Cambodian war has never been a high-tech war, and has been conducted largely
without sophisticated weaponry. There has never been a significant use of air power,
even though Vietnamese and Hun Sen troops maintained a squadron of Soviet fighters
and some attack helicopters.
The Khmer Rouge reportedly received 24 Chinese T-59 main battle tanks, and have captured
at least four Soviet T-54 main battle tanks. They are rumored to have a limited number
of HN 5A man-portable surface-to-air missiles.
But they have relied largely on light arms-Chinese AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenade
launchers, and land mines. In addition, they have sufficient light artillery, rockets,
and mortars (60 mm and 82 mm), the DK-82 and DK-75 recoilless rifle, as well as large
guns ranging from 85 mm to 130 mm.
To date, they have refused to hand over their weapons or canton their troops as called
for by Phase II of the peace agreement, and they continue to bar UNTAC from areas
under their control.
They claim that Vietnamese forces remain hidden throughout Cambodia, and condemn
UNTAC for not verifying the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops as required by the peace
They say that they will only disarm their forces once the Supreme National Council
assumes authority over Cambodia and the Phnom Penh government is dismantled, as they
contend the peace accord requires.
The Khmer Rouge's lack of cooperation with UNTAC has led many analysts to believe
that the U.N. peace plan is on the brink of collapse and a return to civil war imminent.
But the Khmer Rouge's current intransigence is more likely only a tactical move designed
to contribute to the further collapse of the Phnom Penh regime and to buy them time
to build support in the countryside.
None of the Khmer Rouge actions in recent months-including their refusal to enter
into Phase II of the cease-fire-are sufficient grounds to conclude that they will
completely abandon the peace process altogether.
Internal documents make it clear that the Khmer Rouge are under no delusion that
they are currently capable of winning a military victory.
In addition, they realize that significant portions of the population continue to
hate them for their years in power. They know any military victory by the Khmer Rouge
would result in rebellion by a population which, at this point, will never accept
them in sole control of the government.
Aware of their shortcomings, they are focusing on building a base through political
and electoral means-at least for the near future.
Looking towards the future, Pol Pot told cadre: "One thing that is very obvious
is the necessity that there be a united government and political administration composed
of various forces. If we were to hold power all on our own, we would not have sufficient
domestic strength nor sufficient strength of international support."
The Khmer Rouge will most likely accept a limited success in the 1993 elections,
allowing 5 to 10 years to regain political supremacy in Cambodia.
They hope to gain enough seats in the first election in order to have representatives
in the constituent assembly arguing the issues they hope will gain them popular sympathy.
"Possession of popular strength translates into possession of political administration
in the villages. It also begets representation in parliament, which means persons
belonging to us will be in the assembly," Pol Pot told his followers.
"Suppose there will be 100 seats in the Kampuchea National Assembly, it would
not be bad if we had 20 persons, better if we had 30. . .if we have a number of popular
representatives in the parliament we will inevitably have some representatives in
the government and major ministries."
After the 1993 elections-without the United Nations and the current influx of foreign
aid capital that serves as artificial and probably temporary transfusions stabilizing
the Hun Sen regime-they fully expect that the popular legitimacy of their rivals
Corruption, which has pervaded all recent Cambodian governments and critically undermined
their popular support, is remarkably absent within the Khmer Rouge and shows every
sign of cannibalizing the current Phnom Penh regime.
Failures in the economy, widespread corruption, and the ability to exploit a widespread
dislike of Vietnam's perceived influence in Cambodia, all contribute to the Khmer
Rouge steadily gaining popular legitimacy.
It is their hope that time will make people forget the atrocities of the past.
By seizing on issues which improve the lot of the desperately poor and neglected
80 percent of the population who are farmers, their disciplined and non-corrupt organization
will look increasingly good in comparison to their opponents.
So while maintaining a strong underground network that secretly maintains their military
strength, the Khmer Rouge will likely continue with a dual political program that
will include participation in the 1993 elections.
What happens after the U.N. leaves Cambodia to the control of its own elected leaders
and new political parties depends on whether other Cambodian parties can address
the issues that contribute to the Khmer Rouge's growing political strength.
Whatever happens, the Khmer Rouge are prepared for either war or peace, through a
war with bullets or with a "hearts and minds" political strategy.
It is clear that Cambodia's political future includes the Khmer Rouge, only a decade
ago thought to be forever discredited by their disastrous years in power.