Dangrek Mountains, Cambodia
In a forest clearing, 105 Khmer Rouge guerrillas stand at attention in the hot sun, their green Chinese fatigues matching the floral background, and their assortment of AK- 47s, M-16s, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers looking formidable, indeed.
The guerrilla unit has ensembled for visiting foreign journalists as a way of demonstrating the continuing viability of the Khmer Rouge forces, more than a year after the Vietnamese invasion that drove them out of Phnom Penh.
But the commander of the unit confides to this reporter, "Don't think for a minute that we really fight this way -- in big units with heavy weapons. When we go out on missions against the Vietnamese, we go in small units of four or six, or at the most 12.
"A patrol must be capable of carrying out its job with light arms and explosives. Sometimes a detachment will be gone behind enemy lines for as much as a month, and during all that time it must be able to think and act on its own and, above all, move quickly."
A two-day visit to this secret base in northern Cambodia offers at least partial evidence that the anti-Vietnamese resistance is still alive inside Cambodia, and that the Khmer Rouge have not been finished off.
The base village gave every indication of being totally mobilized for the war. Few adult men were present among the 600 villagers; it was said that most were off fighting. Women were planting fast-yield tuber crops and making up packets of rice to be sent to the front. Young boys sat in threes and fours honing the famous pungi stake which has been the traditional weapon of Khmer guerrillas since ancient times. In a makeshift school, students learned radio technology and other skills essential to guerrilla warfare.
"Ours is a people's war," says Khieu Samphan, who replaced Pol Pot as prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea last December. "There is little distinction between civilian and soldier. Everyone fights in the way they can, because it is a war for the salvation of our nation and our race."
This gray area between soldier and civilian has led to conflicting estimates of the remaining troop strength of the Cambodian guerrilla army, which continues to be led by Pol Pot from bases further to the south.
Khieu Samphan puts his side's armed forces at 50,000. That figure would certainly be an exaggeration if it were interpreted as organized, armed guerrillas. But if it includes local militias and support forces as well, it may not be far off.
"Even if we had only 1,000 soldiers left," observes the commander of the company on display, "we could still divide them up into teams of six, and be able to strike at the Vietnamese in more than 160 different places."
It is this capacity for mobility, combined with the guerrillas' knowledge of the terrain and deep loyalty to the Cambodian cause that makes the Khmer Rouge army a force more potent than its sheer numbers. And it is these factors that help explain why, after almost 14 months, an estimated 200,000-man Vietnamese Army has not been able to eradicate the guerrilla resistance and, in fact, has suffered heavy casualties.
The current Kampuchean strategy seems to be one chiefly of survival in the short run, in order to hit the Vietnamese hard sometime in the future. "It will be a very long, protracted war. We are not trying to control great amounts of territory at this point. That is not necessary. All we need is enough land to keep our people safe and to enable us to carry out our operations."
At one point last year, the Kampuchean resistance claimed to be holding 25 percent of the country. Today, Samphan declines to put a figure on the amount that is held, saying only that since that time the "Vietnamese have made some breakthroughs into our areas, and we have made some into theirs."
It is conceivable that the Khmer Rouge actually hold as little as 10-15 percent of Cambodia's land area at the moment, mostly concentrated in bases strung out along the Thai border but also in small pockets throughout Cambodia. That area, however large it is, seems to be sufficient for their purposes. Repeated Vietnamese dry season "mopping up" operations simply have not succeeded , and, in six more weeks, the rains begin again.
Whether the Khmer Rouge will be able to significantly expand their positions during the coming rainy season, as soldiers confidently predict, remains to be seen. But it is apparent that they have survived the dry season and that the war in Cambodia will not be over quickly.