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Khmer Rouge. Group that killed a million Cambodians change its tactics.

The Khmer Rouge are trying to make a comeback. Ousted after their brutal rule in the '70s, as portrayed in `The Killing Fields,' the rebels are fighting to regain Kampuchea from the Vietnamese. Khmer Rouge leaders say they have changed. They allow marriages. They allow private trade. People are happy, they say. But how much of this change is real, and how much tactical? What are the Khmer Rouge like today?

The Khmer Rouge have changed, Chhea Rin says.

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Mr. Rin is chairman of Khao Ta-Ngoke refugee camp (also known as Khao Yai), the largest known concentration of Khmer Rouge civilians. He is broad faced and heavy set and is wearing a dark gray version of the traditional Khmer Rouge jacket.

Someone -- perhaps a Khmer Rouge public-relations officer if such people exist -- has told him to smile a lot: Broad grins mark the beginning, middle, and end of our brief chat. The atmosphere is polite but distant. Another Khmer Rouge official, Hor Houng, makes it clear they do not have much time to spare visitors.

How have the Khmer Rouge changed?

``Before, the policies of Democratic Kampuchea were communist,'' Rin says. ``Now they are socialist.''

Asked what that means in practice, Rin thinks for a minute.

``People can get married,'' he says. Then he pauses to think of other examples. ``They can do anything they like.''

Everyone is very happy with the change, Rin says.

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They can now have a market. Money, salaries, and private trade were banned during the Pol Pot years. They can have a Buddhist pagoda. When the Khmer Rouge ruled Kampuchea (Cambodia), between April 1975 and December 1978, places of worship were closed, monks defrocked and sometimes executed. Schools were destroyed and all but the most basic education abolished.

Today, one thing Khmer refugees here can't do is leave the camp.

If people here have relatives in camps administered by the Khmer Rouge's ostensible allies, the two noncommunist factions of Son Sann and Prince Norodom Sihanouk, they can write letters, Rin says. But obtaining permission from ``the Khmer and Thai authorities'' is ``very difficult,'' Rin says. Human rights sources say that an attempt to leave a Khmer Rouge zone is a punishable offense.

So, a recent Khmer Rouge defector says, is listening to the radio broadcasts of the Khmer Rouge's noncommunist allies. And in a conversation with a United States human rights group last November, one senior Khmer Rouge leader, Ieng Sary, added another political offense: saying that ``Son Sann is going to win the war, and that the Khmer Rouge will never win.''

Khao Ta-Ngoke contains 45,593 people, Rin says. It combines the half dozen or so civilian settlements that were part of Phnom Malai, the large Khmer Rouge border base captured by the Vietnamese in February.

The new camp consists of straight rows of plastic-covered shelters stretching for several hundred yards under the lee of a limestone cliff. Its inhabitants are friendly, though seemingly less used to seeing foreigners than the residents of some noncommunist camps. Most are still dressed in baggy tunic jackets, though some of these are now in bright, stark colors rather than olive green.

The Khmer Rouge guerrillas are on the border, Rin says, but sometimes come to visit their families. There is a striking number of young men here, still in Khmer Rouge uniform, but missing one or both legs.

Despite the importance of the camp, Rin claims he was not involved with the Khmer Rouge before 1979, when the Pol Pot regime was overthrown by the Vietnamese invasion. He was just a farmer. The other official, Hor Houng, tells the same story. He was just a farmer too; he learned his crisp English in the local college. He acted as translator during the chat, once or twice adding, in Khmer, ideas for answers to the translated questions.

Rin's comments suggest the brutal treatment portrayed in the Academy Award-winning movie ``The Killing Fields'' is a thing of the past.

But have the Khmer Rouge really changed?

Of course not. Their real leaders are the same ones who presided over the genocidal years of Democratic Kampu-chea. In all probablility they have kept their old ideals intact. They have simply switched tactics.

They are now relatively weak and dependent on outside aid. The massacres of the Pol Pot years embarrass even their Chinese allies. To avoid losing even more ground, they are trying to project a reassuringly moderate, even friendly, image.

They do not do it very well. Rin's definition of the present policies as socialist, for example, does not jibe with the official line.

Last year Khieu Samphan, the figurehead Khmer Rouge leader, announced that liberal capitalism was the way of the future for Kampuchea. One person who would have found the statement ironic was Hu Nim. A close associate of Khieu Samphan and once a top Khmer Rouge leader, in July 1977 Hu Nim was executed after two months' detention in the group's main interrogation center.

In his 200-page confession -- each page signed and fingerprinted and almost certainly extracted under hideous torture -- Hu Nim ``admits'' to being an agent of both the Vietnamese communists and the Central Intelligence Agency (an unusual combination), and to working all his career for ``the construction of capitalism in Cambodia.''

In other words, precisely what the Khmer Rouge now claim to support.

His real crime was probably opposition to the most extreme elements of Pol Pot's blueprint for Kampuchean communism. One thing Hu Nim apparently favored was foreign aid to obtain items like tractors. Pol Pot wanted absolute self-sufficiency.

But Khieu Samphan's statement of last year was aimed at foreign audiences. Rin's definition is probably an echo of the internal Khmer Rouge position. The double standard runs through all aspects of Khmer Rouge theory and practice.

Take the leadership. Soon after the Vietnamese overthrew Democratic Kampuchea, Pol Pot and his colleagues held a congress.

They announced a new cabinet. Pol Pot gave up the premiership in favor of the ``moderate'' Khieu Samphan. Other compromised figures were replaced by more acceptable faces. But as the government had no country to rule, the changes were purely symbolic.

At the same time the real but secret source of power, the Khmer Communist Party Politbureau, was also shaken up. Pol Pot remained on top.

And Ta Mok, the sinister figure who, as Pol Pot's security chief, actually presided over the purges of Democratic Kampuchea, was promoted. He now seems to be the No. 3 figure in the party, and second only to Pol Pot in the Army command.

In theory the Khmer Communist Party has been dissolved -- after all, the Khmer Rouge now believe in liberal capitalism. In fact most analysts believe that it has simply retreated back into the shadows. It probably borrowed the idea from its hated enemy, the Vietnamese Communist Party, which in 1945 announced a spurious dissolution.

The Khmer Rouge attitude today is reminiscent of their approach in the early '70s. In those days they were not yet strong enough to dominate their Sihanoukist partners in the Royal Government of National Unity. Supporters of Prince Sihanouk had their armed forces. Veterans of the war against the French who had spent 1954 to 1970 in Vietnam were also strong. Policies were accordingly moderate.

The spirit of the time was caught by one of the few Westerners who was able to travel in guerrilla zones, the French scholar Serge Thion. He described a meeting for a new Khmer Rouge military unit in February 1972.

Buddhist monks were honored guests at the meeting. ``Long live the Buddhist religion,'' one banner read. ``Long live the National United Front led by Prince Sihanouk,'' read another. A senior Khmer Rouge cadre told the soldiers to be ready to defend their villages and their pagodas.

By 1973-74 the Sihanoukist troops were gone. So were most of the Vietnamese-trained cadres. (A handful of survivors are prominent in the Phnom Penh government today.)

In early 1976, Sihanouk was removed. By then the monks had gone, too. And a few years later, it was the turn of the cadre who had addressed the meeting: He reached the rank of deputy premier before being purged late in 1978.

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