Khmer Rouge forces, who are fighting a rearguard action to retake their wart-torn country from occupying Vietnamese forces, are showing increasing confidence in pinning down their enemy.
The Khmer Rouge appear to be not only escalating their attacks, but also extending their tenuous hold on some parts of the country. In the distance, for instance, the rumble of mortar fire echoes through the jungle throughout the day. But the guns are not Vietnamese. They belong to Khmer Rouge guerrillas firing on companies of Vietnamese troops whose supply lines have been cut.
Recently, when many press reports said Vietnamese attacks were escalating, this correspondent visited a zone in the jungles of northern Cambodia controlled by the Khmer Rouge forces.
This is the former Pol Pot government ousted from Phnom Penh in January 1979. It is now waging a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese troops operating in Cambodia.
The two-day stay included observing a guerrilla unit in training, visiting two villages, and interviewing various officials, including Khieu Samphan.Samphan replaced Pol Pot as prime minister in a government reorganization last fall.
What emerged was a picture of a well-organized guerrilla movement, whose leadership feels increasingly confident it will one day defeat Vietnam and the Heng Samrin regime in Phnom Penh.
According to Khmer Rouge statements, the last several months have seen a significant turn in the military situation.
"The Vietnamese no longer have the possibility to militarily crush us," they said. Referring to a map of Cambodia, Khieu Samphan designated an arc running from the western border into the north to show areas of especially heavy fighting. Then waving at the rest of the map, he noted: "The combat zone has extended to everywhere in the country."
Bangkok newspapers, such as the Post and the Nation-Review, carry regular reports on the war and give some independent confirmation of increasing guerrilla activity. The Bangkok Post reported July 26 that the Khmer Rouge recently had resumed operations in Angkor Thom, an area adjacent to Angkor Wat.
The Khmer rouge have a goal that each guerrilla unit inflict one or two casualties on the Vietnamese per day, or 300 casualties daily throughout the country. This goal is being met, according to Khieu Samphan, who claimed 10,000 Vietnamese soldiers are killed or wounded every mont. Vietnam rotates in fresh troops to maintain a troop level about 200,000 to 250,000, through the quality of the new recruits is dropping, Samphan asserted. The Khmer Rouge admit their side suffers 500 casualties a month.
The nutritional and health situation for the Khmer Rouge appears to be adequate and is evidently improved since last year. I observed a unit of 100 guerrillas (called Company No. 207 of the Kampuchean 912th Division) that recently returned for more training, after several months of operations near Highway 6. The guerrillas, clothes in crisp green, Chinese-supplied uniforms, looked healthy and were in good spirits.
The guerrillas offered a striking demonstration of their ability to move invisibly through the countryside. I was taken to a hill overlooking a field of grass, broken only by occasional bushes, trees, and outcroppings of rock. Sao Tem asked, "Can you see anyone in the field?"
Despite close observation, no one was visible. Finally Sao Tem laughed and said 36 guerrillas were closing in, ready to strike. By the time the guerrillas appeared, we were well within range of their automatic rifles.
Among the more disabling weapons used by the Khmer Rouge are booby traps, and the mose devastating are deep pits in the ground studded with sharp bamboo stakes called punji sticks. When covered with grass, these traps are virtually impossible to see. They are scattered widely through the jungle, making the Khmer Rouge areas difficult to penetrate.
Khmer Rouge officials assert that the areas of the country under their control are gradually stabilizing and enlarging, and now encompass 1 million Cambodians. According to their figures, 1 to 2 million people live in areas controlled by Vietnam, and an additional 2 million live in contested zones.
They attribute their gains in part to a change in military policy made last year. Prior to April 1979, the Khmer Rouge focused on conventional warfare, deploying large units to fight the Vietnamese. Khmer Rouge officials now state this was a serious error that caused many losses. After April the emphasis shifted to small-scale guerrilla warfare, with a subsequent improvement in the military situation.
The Khieu Samphan government says it has learned many lessons since the Vietnamese invaded in December 1978. One is that the policies followed from 1975 to 1978 are "unfeasible" and "can no longer be implemented." The prime minister said errors had been made during that period, though he said a full summation was yet to be made.
In place of the previous policies there is a new "united front" program, which spells out a wide range of individual rights and freedoms, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom in practicing one's chosen occupation. Khieu Samphan said, "Once all Vietnamese troops are withdrawn from Kampuchea [Cambodia], a free and general election will be held, by secret ballot , supervised by the secretary-general of the United Nations or his representative."
To show their commitment to a change in policies, officials said, the "united front" program in being implemented in zones under control of the Khmer Rouge forces. Efforts to carry out the new policies were clearly visible in the two villages I visited. Each family has its own house and kitchen, before families were often separated and cooking was done collectively. Every family can farm its own private plot of land, before this was not allowed. Neat patches of tapioca, corn, eggplant, and tobacco are scattered throughout the villages.
The people seemed generally satisfied with life in their village, though most of the 2,000 inhabitants have suffered with malaria, and the food supply is marginal at times. The villagers support the guerrillas by preparing food and producing punji sticks at the rate of 10,000 a day. The Vietnamese have never come within 20 miles of this area.
Although the Khmer Rouge, who call their government Democratic Kampuchea, say the war is progressing, they are not predicting a rapid defeat of Vietnam. They admit they face many difficulties and say the war will be protracted.
Summarizing his current view of the war, Khieu Samphan said, "We have reached a great strategic turning point in the military situation. But this does not mean we are in the position to go on the offensive. We are now at the stage of waging a war of attrition and will be for some time to come."