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'Radio Free Asia'

Use airwaves as a tool for democracy in Cambodia

WITH the signing of the UN-sponsored peace agreement on Oct. 23, the United States should now move quickly to assist the process of democratization in Cambodia by stepping up the flow of radio broadcasts within the country. While US policymakers continue to fine-tune strategies for assisting the peace process, there is a danger that the concept of establishing such a radio service could become bogged down in review boards or special task forces - thus suffering a slow death, Washington-style.Although much of the civilized world continues to recall with abhorrence the Khmer Rouge's four-year reign of terror during which Pol Pot presided over the deaths of perhaps 2 million Cambodians, there are unsettling signs that history may be about to repeat itself. The recent discovery that Pol Pot was in the "vicinity" of the June 24-26 Cambodian peace talks in Thailand comes as no shock to veteran Cambodia watchers. What should shock the world community into action, however, is the relative ease with which the Khmer Rouge is preparing for a return to power. Despite many claims to the contrary, Pol Pot has continued to manipulate Khmer Rouge strings since his formal retirement in 1985. Long-standing reports of Pol Pot's being sighted in Thailand lend credibility to the claims that many of the regional powerbrokers view Pol Pot, not as a mass murderer, but as part of the stable order in Southeast Asia. In a mid-summer report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska told of a conversation with Thai Foreign Minister Arsa Sarasi n, who, according to Senator Kerrey, "wanted a settlement not to prevent a Khmer Rouge return but to forestall Vietnamese control of the region." Kerrey also spoke with a Thai general, who said: "Pol Pot is better than Vietnam." One feature of the Khmer Rouge scheme to regain power involves the use of radio broadcasting. More than a military necessity, radio broadcasting is viewed as essential to amassing large-scale support for Khmer Rouge policies. Designated the official broadcast arm of the Khmer Rouge, the "Voice of Democratic Kampuchea" can be heard throughout the country. The salient question is whether time has blurred the lines of distinction between the most recent enemies of the Cambodian people. While the Cambodian peasant remembers the atrocities committed under Pol Pot from 1975 to 1978, he is also well aware of the Vietnamese capacity to torture and murder. He knows that soon after evicting the Pol Pot regime from power, Vietnamese overlords set about suppressing Cambodian culture. Khmer Rouge radio broadcasts, many of which originate from transmitting sites in So uthern China, continually help to evoke memories of these Vietnamese atrocities, while softening the Khmer Rouge image into that of liberator of Cambodia. In fact, just prior to the signing of the peace treaty, Khmer Rouge radio was unilaterally declaring victory against Vietnam and urging its soldiers to move quickly to establish Khmer Rouge councils in Cambodian villages. With the signing of the agreement on Oct. 23, the next step will be to effectively manage the "technical" disputes about verification and demobilization that are bound to surface as the peace plan is implemented in phases. There will now be a period of 16 months before national elections are held, in which a dozen or more political parties may participate. What, if any, role should the US be prepared to play during this period? Some Cambodian officials, including Prince Norodom Ranarith, are on record as welcoming increased US radio broadcasting. Speaking in Washington on Oct. 4, Prince Ranarith said US broadcasts could help explain the complicated terms of a UN peace agreement - a document even Assistant Secretary of State Richard Solomon has labeled "complex." Ranarith also thinks that a radio service could help provide balanced coverage during what promises to be a confusing, multi-party campaign period; heighten public awar eness of human rights issues; and provide historical information regarding the democratic transformations in Eastern Europe. Congress, having essentially placed a stranglehold on the flow of aid to the two non-communist Cambodian resistance groups, primarily due to unfounded allegations of collusion with the Khmer Rouge, has yet to decide on a strategy to counter-balance an aggressive Khmer Rouge propaganda campaign. The Voice of America broadcasts only two hours per day to Cambodia. What is lacking is a US equivalent of the successful Radio Free Europe (RFE) service. Commonly referred to as "surrogate" radio, RFE is primarily dedicated to providing hard news and commentary and has been widely praised by East European leaders as instrumental in the transition to democracy. To replicate these successes in Asia, I introduced legislation to create a "Radio Free Asia" service. The recent dramatic events in Moscow should cause the US to take a long, hard look at Indochina, where conditions for upheaval and instability are ripe. While European communism appears to be experiencing its last gasps, a more virulent, historically "home-grown" strain of communism persists throughout much of Asia. Nevertheless, it is clear that this Bamboo Curtain is eroding, and we should be prepared to assist the embryonic forces of democracy prepare for the long uphill climb toward freedom.

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