A New US Policy Toward Cambodia: A Commitment To A Democratic Process

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The communist government of Vietnam announced in April that it will "withdraw" all of its military forces from Cambodia by September of this year. Factors behind this decision were the destitute state of Vietnam’s economy and its urgent need for economic aid from the West and intense pressure from the Chinese and, possibly, from the Soviets.

Hanoi’s announcement has accompanied — or been a catalyst for — frenetic activity in the area. A major international conference aimed at achieving a negotiated power-sharing arrangement in Cambodia may be held, possibly as early as August; Vietnam is making ill-concealed efforts to maintain control of Cambodia after Hanoi withdraws its forces; the Soviet Union continues to expand its military presence in the region; prior to the present turmoil in Beijing and elsewhere, China increased its support for the Khmer Rouge; member nations of ASEAN have opened or enlarged trade relations with Vietnam.

Such developments have tended to strengthen the hand of the various communist factions. Meanwhile, the non-communist Cambodian forces have been handicapped in their efforts to provide a viable democratic alternative to the communists due to the former’s relative military weakness. This weakness has compelled such forces to fashion Faustian arrangements for their protection with the Chinese and the PRC’s Cambodian clients, the Khmer Rouge.

The United States government is reported to be preparing to take an important first step toward creating opportunities for the democratic elements to survive and grow in Cambodia if and when a Vietnamese withdrawal creates new opportunities for doing so. The Bush Administration evidently will supply covert assistance to the non-communist resistance forces fighting Hanoi and its puppet regime in Phnom Penh, the so-called People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK). However, opposition from some quarters in Congress may stymie this initiative. Should Congress reject President Bush’s democratic aid initiative, events in Southeast Asia will render the U.S. influence in the region utterly irrelevant and make a new bloodbath more certain.

Forces Undermining the Prospects for Peace and Freedom in Cambodia:

To be successful, however, U.S. policy must provide more than just significant military assistance to Cambodia’s non-communist elements. It must recognize and deal effectively with the major forces motivating and being driven by the principal actors in this Southeast Asian drama:



There are ample grounds for skepticism about the sincerity of Hanoi’s intention actually to relinquish its present, hegemonic control over Cambodia.


  • Should some form of coalition government emerge following the "withdrawal," it is realistic to expect that among those who participate from the present, Vietnamese-backed puppet government of Cambodia will be many who are former members of the Khmer Rouge. One such individual is the current prime minister, Hun Sen. Such officials are utterly dependent upon Vietnam; they can be relied upon to try to implement policies in Phnom Penh in accordance with Hanoi’s bidding.

  • What is more, Vietnam is not relying exclusively on senior echelons as the instruments of effective control. To the contrary, Hanoi is systematically infiltrating Cambodian-speaking Vietnamese soldiers and cadres into the PRK army and most departments of the PRK government down to the village level to ensure its hegemonic influence once the Vietnamese army withdraws.

  • Hanoi has also attached a provision to its troop withdrawal announcement reserving Vietnam’s right to reimpose its forces to prop up the puppet PRK regime should the latter be threatened. PRK leaders have similarly stated that Vietnam’s advisors and "technical experts" will remain in Cambodia even after the "withdrawal."

    The Soviet Union

The Soviet Union and its allies are Hanoi’s only supporters in the international community and provide a staggering amount of aid to Hanoi — aid that, despite the Soviets’ severe economic problems and Gorbachev’s claims about "new thinking," is drastically increasing.


  • In 1987, the Soviets gave $2 billion annually to Hanoi and in 1988 the Soviets increased its aid by 50% to $3 billion — an astonishing 15-17 percent of Vietnam’s GNP.

  • In Vietnam, the Soviet Union is reportedly conducting a major build-up of its naval fleet at the extensive Da Nang and Cam Ranh Bay facilities.

  • In Cambodia, the USSR has renovated the Kompong Som port to accommodate Soviet submarines, which are known to be making an increasing number of port calls.

    The expansion of Kompong Som port signifies the Soviets’ desire to remain a permanent military power in Cambodia and Southeast Asia — a presence inimical to Cambodian aspirations to become an independent nation once again.



The present turmoil in the People’s Republic of China makes it difficult to assess the effect — if any — that domestic distractions may have on Chinese policy toward Cambodia. That said, several recent trends in the PRC’s policy are noteworthy:


  • China has been the preeminent power actively opposing Hanoi’s occupation of Cambodia and providing the Khmer Rouge with military, economic, and logistical support.

    It is reported that, since April, the Khmer Rouge has received increased amounts of arms from China — despite recent, informal Chinese assurances that the PRC would not help the Khmer Rouge regain power.


  • It has simultaneously gained greater influence elsewhere in the region by supplanting the United States as the principal military supplier of Thailand.

    This relationship has enabled the PRC to exercise greater control over Thai support for non-communist elements in Cambodia.


    Thailand and ASEAN

A further factor in the increasing willingness of Thailand — and other democratic nations of Southeast Asia — to seek accommodations with communist forces in Cambodia is a result of their own intensified domestic pressures to explore new trade opportunities with Vietnam. For its part, Hanoi seeks expanded trade to resuscitate its destitute economy and to end its status as a diplomatic pariah. The convergence of these two interests offers Vietnam access to hard currency and technology that could greatly alleviate the currently unsupportable costs of its aggression in Cambodia.

The Democratic Elements’ Struggle:

The non-communist forces of Cambodia are currently comprised of the Sihanoukist National Army (ANS) with 18,000 troops loyal to Prince Sihanouk and the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPLNF) with 12,000 troops under the command of Son Sahn.

These forces have been resisting the Vietnamese and their Cambodian proxies valiantly but have been obliged, in the face of serious shortages in equipment, inadequate financial backing and tenuous logistical support, to establish a marriage of convenience with the 35,000-man army of the Khmer Rouge. This arrangement is known as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). Unfortunate as it may be, unless and until such democratic elements are able to build their base of popular support and provide some means of protecting those who give it such support, the democratic resistance cannot survive — except in affiliation with the abhorrent Khmer Rouge.

Of late, moreover, the ANS and KPLNF have felt compelled by their circumstances and pressures from the Chinese, Thais and others to consider entering into a negotiated arrangement for sharing power in Cambodia not only with their communist partners in the CGDK, the Khmer Rouge, but also with the communists of the Vietnamese-backed regime (whose army numbers at least 40,000). Such pressure was in evidence at a recent meeting in Indonesia –the third, so-called Jakarta Informal Meeting (JIM-3) — where representatives of the CGDK met with the PRK’s prime minister, Hun Sen.

In the course of this meeting, Prince Sihanouk, the preeminent non-communist figure and figurehead leader of the anti-Vietnamese coalition, acquiesced to important Vietnamese demands about maintaining the structure of the PRK government and the circumstances under which a new regime would emerge in Phnom Penh. This development not only illustrates the current, weak position of the non-communist factions; it also augurs ill for the prospects of a free and independent Cambodia emerging when and if Vietnam does withdraw.

The American Role: An Uncertain Trumpet?

Those looking to the United States to provide leadership in sustaining the democratic factions have been faced with, at best, conflicting signals. For its part, the Bush Administration has let it be known that it is moving toward providing "covert" military aid to the non-communist resistance.

At the same time, members of Congress led by Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are hoping to legislate a ban on the United States providing even humanitarian assistance to the non-communist resistance, so long as it is in any way associated with the Khmer Rouge. This proposed amendment is the more ironic insofar as it assails the non-communist resistance for its tactical association with the Khmer Rouge when that association is only partly due to the democratic forces’ understandable need for protection from the Vietnamese. It is also a product of U.S.-supported ASEAN and Chinese pressure on those Cambodians opposed to communism to bring about such an arrangement.

The Pell approach could well have the opposite effect from that intended — namely improving the chances that the Khmer Rouge will return to power. It would abandon Sihanouk and other non-communist Cambodians to the contest between two militant communist factions; one supported by China and the other backed by the Soviet Union and Vietnam. By blocking the distribution of military aid to the non-communist resistance, the Pell amendment would condemn Cambodia to a future comprised of further political repression, economic stagnation, and bloodshed.

Many of those who advocate the Pell strategy appear to favor one or the other of two, problematic alternatives. Some prefer that the United States deal unilaterally with the PRK government and normalize relations with Hanoi. Others say the non-communist resistance can rely on China for aid. With regard to the former, there is little reason to believe that the Khmer Rouge alumni now in the PRK will be, if left to their own devices, substantially more benign than the alternative. With regard to the latter, the bloody crackdown on democratically-minded dissent in China demonstrates the folly of relying on China to promote democratic forces in Cambodia.

Fortunately, there are many in Congress who recognize the self-defeating nature of the Pell initiative; they appreciate that opposition to the Bush Administration’s plan to provide aid to the non-communist resistance simply damages America’s ability to support those promoting democracy in Southeast Asia. For example, Representative Stephen Solarz (D-NY) is urging that the present $5 million ceiling on U.S. assistance to the non-communist resistance be raised and that that assistance include lethal aid as well as non-military training.

Recommended Elements of a Cogent U.S. Policy toward Cambodia:

Continued U.S. inaction on behalf of democratic forces in Cambodia simply enables the enemies of freedom — notably Hanoi, which is infamous for exploiting U.S. government differences — to consolidate their repressive hold on this long-suffering nation. Were it to become law, a congressional prohibition of military assistance to the non-communist resistance would render America’s influence over events in Southeast Asia to irrelevancy and condemn Cambodia to a new bloodbath.

Accordingly, U.S. policy toward Cambodia should be dedicated to maximizing the military strength and, consequently, the influence and negotiating leverage of Cambodia’s non-communist resistance. In particular, the United States should — in coordination with ASEAN, Britain and France — work to broaden the base of support for the non-communist resistance inside Cambodia through a variety of means, including those listed below. No real progress should be expected — or demanded of the democratic elements — in their negotiations with the communist factions until the military and political positions of the non-communist resistance is improved.


    Military Assistance

  • The United States should provide military assistance such as uniforms, radios, rifles, mine detectors, ammunition and transport vehicles as a matter of utmost urgency.

  • The United States should collaborate with France in providing training outside of Cambodia for military personnel loyal to Sihanouk and Son Sann in guerilla warfare and logistics.

  • The United States should work with the British in supporting ASEAN’s efforts to keep the non-communist resistance supplied with arms and other materials.

    Political and Administrative Training Assistance


  • The United States should join French efforts in training Sihanouk supporters at the national, grassroots and regional levels in administrative and political organization skills, and should extend such training to Son Sann’s forces, which are not currently beneficiaries of this assistance.

  • The United States should help bring all non-communist Cambodians together to facilitate creation of a cohesive united front on the Thailand-Cambodia border.

  • The United States should encourage the democratic movement in Cambodia to identify and promote a revamped broad-based leadership so as to reduce the risk of its collapse inherent in the present, virtually complete reliance upon Prince Sihanouk.

  • This will require, among other steps, a reforming of the two existing political/military organizations in Son Sann’s forces, FUNCINPEC and the KPLNF, into a new united front which incorporates neutral Cambodians, both from within and outside of Cambodia, as a foundation for democracy in Cambodia.

    Continue to Isolate Hanoi

The United States should support continued isolation of Hanoi politically and economically as an essential means of ensuring the withdrawal of Vietnam’s forces from Cambodia and minimizing the danger of a Khmer Rouge-PRK pincer movement aimed at eliminating the non-communist elements.


  • It was, after all, the political and economic isolation of Hanoi that proved a major factor in its decision to "withdraw" troops from Cambodia.

  • Unless such pressure continues to be maintained, there is a high probability that the communist Vietnamese will do as they did in the aftermath of the 1962 Laos agreement, i.e., leave behind Vietnamese soldiers and security forces as "immigrants" or in the guise of indigenous soldiers.

  • Its transgressions in Cambodia aside, Vietnam’s isolation should be maintained to compel Hanoi to end opprobrious behavior elsewhere by:


    • accounting for all U.S. POWs and MIAs;

    • respecting human rights in its own country;

    • ending its political and military interference in Laos;

    • and terminating its aid and training for Latin American revolutionaries, especially in El Salvador and Guatemala.

    Press the Soviet Union

U.S. pressure on Vietnam can be greatly enhanced by a corresponding campaign to get the Soviet Union to reverse its reduce its support for Hanoi and its own, relentless military build-up in the region, notably at the Cambodian port of Kompong Som.


  • Halting Moscow’s extravagant $1 billion annual spending on Hanoi’s military machine would significantly circumscribe Vietnam’s ability to wage war in Cambodia or Laos.

  • An adequate Soviet response should be a major factor in considering other Soviet-American issues — including those involving loans, credits, and joint ventures vitally needed by the Soviet economy.


    Press China

The United States should similarly press China to reduce its support for the Khmer Rouge. America should, in particular, take full advantage of the likely lull in Chinese diplomatic activity due to its domestic turmoil to strengthen the non-communist resistance politically and militarily.


  • The United States should press Beijing to invite Pol Pot and the other senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge hierarchy as exiles in China and urge it to reduce arms transfers to the Khmer Rouge.

  • The United States must engage with both Beijing and Moscow to preclude Sino-Soviet condominium in Cambodia that would effectively preclude a role for the non-communists, with or without Sihanouk, in obtaining and governing an independent Cambodia.


    Develop A Coherent Refugee Policy

The United States should develop a coherent refugee policy vis-a-vis Thailand similar to the policy toward Afghan refugees in Pakistan.


  • It is imperative that Cambodian refugees are not sent back into Cambodia — with or without a peace treaty — until it is safe for them to return.

  • All Vietnamese refugees should be moved off the Thai border with Cambodia, and Cambodian refugees located into more stable and secure areas.

  • In camps administered by Son Sann’s forces, a code of laws must be established and enforced. Refugees living in these camps must have safe and humane living conditions.

  • Cambodians held in Khmer Rouge camps, especially on the "hidden border," should be given freedom of movement if they wish to relocate to camps of other factions. International organizations must be given access to provide humanitarian assistance to this population as well as guarantee human rights.


    Supporting Sihanouk’s Negotiating Position

Taken together, these measures will do much to strengthen the hand of Prince Sihanouk and his democratic allies in their negotiations with the communist forces. In the meantime, as the non-communist resistance attains strength and cohesion, and while doing everything possible to encourage that resistance’s eventual independence from its Khmer Rouge coalition partners, the United States should continue supporting Sihanouk’s current negotiating position, namely his demands for:


  • A verifiable, unconditional, and total withdrawal of all Vietnamese military and security forces from Cambodia before organizing the interim government.

  • Creation of a strong U.N. commission to monitor Hanoi’s withdrawal, facilitate peace between the four factions, monitor the organizing of an interim coalition government bereft of Pol Pot and his close associates, and supervise future elections.

  • Elements of the Khmer Rouge will be allowed to participate in an interim government headed by Sihanouk, as a means of preventing this communist faction from turning on its non-communist coalition partners, but only on the condition that Pol Pot and his entire hierarchy will be banned from participating in the interim government and are to transfer technology derived from American sources, is there evidence that this was the result of a deliberate, high-level policy decision? Or could it have been the consequence of an inadvertent inventory mix-up or other lower-level action? The law recognizes the difference between negligence and willful violation of agreements; if U.S.-Israeli agreements were violated, which of these factors prompted the transgression? Despite the evidence which suggests that many oand Chinese intransigence, and increase the likelihood of Hanoi continuing de facto control over Cambodia.


Without a comprehensive and coherent U.S. policy designed to maximize the strength of the non-communist resistance forces, they will be overrun by the Khmer Rouge or pushed ever more deeply into a relationship with the Chinese, who historically have favored the Khmer Rouge. Their only other alternative is to join ranks with the current PRK government in Phnom Penh, which would be tantamount to accepting de facto Soviet/Vietnamese control of Indochina. If ASEAN nations, especially Thailand, do not sense and, in any event, cannot rely upon a strong, long-term American commitment to a democratic outcome in Cambodia, they will surely be tempted to agree to a short-term solution on Hanoi’s terms that can only create further conflict in the region down the road.

The Bush Administration appears poised to take an important first step in developing such a cogent policy toward the region. It can only be hoped that those in the Congress disposed to block the Administration’s initiative should bear in mind one basic point: While there is no guarantee that a policy of actively supporting the non-communist forces will bring about a free and peaceful Cambodia, it is certain that the alternative espoused by Senator Pell and others will not do so. In fact, the net effect of a cut-off of aid to the democratic resistance in Cambodia can be safely predicted to be the abandonment of those who have struggled so valiantly for freedom and independence. The only uncertainty in that event is which of the cliques of brutal communists will be in charge of the next Killing Fields.

Center for Security Policy

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