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Khmer Rouge effort to rebuff Vietnamese only sputters

"We know China has reinforced the Khmer Rouge this dry season, and we know they're placing a lot of hope in the monsoon months. But if the Khmer Rouge come, they'll find us more than ready."

The Vietnamese official in Phnom Penh had good reason to be confident: Despite Khmer Rouge high command predictions for success in warfare, during the last two rainy seasons -- the months of July to November, which favor guerrilla units over unwieldy conventional forces -- little has happened on the battlefield.

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In the diplomatic arena, efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to form a united front of anti-Vietnamese Khmers seem to have stalled.

The Khmer Rouge have long planned to open a corridor across northern Cambodia , linking Lao rebels in southern Laos with dissident montagnards in the central highlands of Vietnam. From this corridor they would proceed to liberate of the rest of the country.

So far the plan has failed, and guerrillas loyal to Pol Pot are confined largely to the Thai border, near the former Cambodian prime minister's headquarters, and to several other provinces -- among them Kompong Thom, some 90 miles north of Phnom Penh. Small units move around other parts of the country, occasionally making raids, some of them effective.

Recently a unit ambushed a convoy escorting the province chief of Prey Veng, reportedly injuring him seriously. But they have also failed to create any security problems in Phnom Penh for well over a year.

Khmer Rouge leaders have apparently tried to explain this relative inactivity to ASEAN by saying that they were conserving their forces. The assertion, however, was contradicted by the Khmer Rouge deputy premier for foreign affairs, Ieng Sary, when he was in New York last month.

Describing his movement's strategy in Maoist military terms (the three phases of strategic defensive, balance of forces, and general offensive), he announced:

"We are already in the second phase of our struggle, which, historically speaking, is usually quite short. Then we shall pass to the general offensive." His predictions don't seem to jibe with observations by others, but this does not mean that the Khmer Rouge will fade away. They are a brutally resilient fighting force. Few surrender, and fewer still desert.

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In Battambang, a western border province where some the most intense fighting occurs, Heng Samrin security officials say that only 188 Khmer Rouge were captured or deserted in the first half of this year. The only prisoner they produced was a partially trained militiaman -- the lowest category of fighter in the Khmer Rouge army.

Moreover, there is no sign of a slowdown in Chinese aid. Vietnamese sources say that Peking has provided its Khmer allies with 105- mm artillery and long-range rockets over the last year. The new weapons clearly hurt.

The Khmer Rouge, however, need to show they can be more than just a minor problem for the Vietnamese. They need a show of strength on the battlefield if they are to forestall ASEAN's efforts to dilute them in a united front with the two noncommunist leaders, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and his former premier, Son Sann.

In theory the united front, originally suggested by Singapore and Thailand at the beginning of the year, was a promising idea: It would pick up diplomatic support at the United Nations, and perhaps military aid from the US, and might encourage Khmers inside the country to resist the Vietnamese.

In practice, the plan has never shown any signs of getting off the ground. Peking and the Khmer Rouge have consistently opposed it; they maintain the plan would cripple their military struggle. At the same time, the anti- Vietnamese feelings of the three would-be front members only slightly exceed their dislike of each other.

At a UN conference on Cambodia held in New York last month, ASEAN officials got the representatives of the three groups together for a quiet meeting. Nothing happened. "They just bickered," said a frustrated ASEAN diplomat.

Leaders of the three groups will meet again in Singapore in early September, but ASEAN officials are not optimistic about the outcome.

Son Sann, until recently ASEAN's first choice as leader of the front, is losing ground fast. He refuses to join in an alliance with the Khmer Rouge without cast-iron assurances of military and political preeminence.

He calls this "simple realism." ASEAN call it sheer stubbornness; the are losing patience with him.

Son Sann does not seem to care. He does not really seem to feel that he has any chance of success against the Vietnamese. And rather compromise with the Khmer Rouge, whom he loathes, he appears to be thinking about his place in history. Interviewed shortly before the New York conference, Son Sann justified his rigid stance by stressing his age (he is 78), and saying "I want to die with the respect, not the scorn of my people."

Son Sann, leader of the largest noncommunist resistance group, appears to have few political activists and a even fewer troops in the country. In his recent visit to Washington he claimed to have 7,000 fighting men. ASEAN sources suggest that the true figure is closer to 2,000. While in Washington he also repeated his request to the Reagan administration for military hardware for 25, 000 soldiers; that request was not granted.

ASEAN looks increasingly to Prince Sihanouk to lead the front. The unpredictable prince seems amenable to working with the Khmer Rouge, at least for the moment. He has no troops at his command, but he has something much more powerful -- a name.

Antiregime political propaganda seems to disturb the Heng Samrin regime as much, if not more, than military raids. While both Vietnamese and Khmer officials in Phnom Penh say that Sihanouk's popularity has waned in recent years , they are clearly worried about him.

"Since the united front idea was floated," said one Vietnamese official, "the Khmer Rouge have hidden behind Sihanouk's name in their rumor campaigns. They never mention Pol Pot or Khieu Samphan any more, only the prince."

Another observer in Phnom Penh added: "In many ways the Kampuchean [Cambodian ] government considers Sihanouk their greatest enemy. He's dangerous because some people, mainly small traders and some peasants, still harbor illusions about him. That's why the government is constantly stressing on the radio and in their meetings that 'Sihanouk equals Pol Pot.'"

This is probably the most persuasive propaganda that the Heng Samrin government can make, for though a growing number of Khmers seem disaffected with the Vietnamese-backed regime, few are willing to trust a movement that includes the Khmer Rouge.

"The Khmer Rouge tricked us once with their beautiful words," said one prominent Phnom Penh intellectual, "then they massacred my family. Never again."

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