The Return of the Khmer Rouge

The pain of Cambodia is as intense as ever. Food sent from foreign countries to the authorities in Phnom Penh has not been reaching hungry Cambodians. They are threatened by another famine this summer. Food sent across the border from Thailand has been reaching Cambodians. But it has also been reaching the Khmer Rouge, who are stronger than at any time since the Vietnamese invaded to crush them eighteen months ago. A political solution to the country’s plight seems more distant than ever.

The Cambodian relief operation is already one of the most expensive in history. By the end of this year the international organizations alone will have spent around $500 million over fifteen months, or $100 a head for the estimated five million Cambodians who have so far survived the last ten years. (The Bangladesh relief efforts, by contrast, cost about $22 a head over a three-year period.)

On May 26 fifty-nine Western and Asian countries held a humanitarian conference in Geneva on Cambodia; they pledged more money (not enough) to the relief effort. This commitment was made in a mood of anger and frustration with the Vietnamese and their government in Phnom Penh. The two governments had refused to attend the conference, although they will be the largest beneficiaries of the new aid pledged. There was, they said, nothing to discuss, and they denounced the meeting as an imperialist plot. Cambodia was represented at this “humanitarian” conference by the Khmer Rouge (“The Government of Democratic Kampuchea”), who still hold the country’s seat at the United Nations.

Most of the delegates made stirring speeches in defense of the Cambodian people and in criticism of Vietnam. At the back of the hall the Khmer Rouge delegation smiled and clapped effusively. It cannot be said that other delegates clustered around them; for the most part the Khmer Rouge representatives wandered around alone soliciting handshakes and smiling ingratiatingly. They invited me back to their mission. Their ambassador at large, Thioun Moeum, a highly intelligent graduate of the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, spent almost three hours assuring me that although certain “errors” had been committed in the past, their rule would be much more restrained in the future. He was as bland as he was clever.

When I reminded him that to many people the regime he represented was on a par with Hitler’s, he merely smiled, shrugged, and promised that they now took account of Western concerns. Talking with him I found exhausting and very depressing. After I left he flew to Bangkok. From there Thai authorities took him to the Cambodian border and he returned to the jungle, to rejoin Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, and the thirty to forty thousand guerrillas they now have fighting the Vietnamese.

The relief operation has been underway since last fall. UNICEF and the International Red Cross (ICRC) have shipped food and other supplies to Phnom Penh and to Cambodia’s main seaport, Kompong Som. So have Oxfam and other groups. UNICEF and ICRC, together with…

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