If what is left of Cambodia is to be saved, an international conference must take place soon. Like the Geneva Conference of 1954 it would have to agree on the neutralization of Cambodia as part of a regional settlement endorsed by the great powers, including Russia and China, for all of Indochina. Norodom Sihanouk, who jealously tried to protect Cambodia’s neutrality from 1954-1970, is now in Paris and on his way to the US to plead for such a settlement, which would very likely involve Sihanouk’s own return.

If no settlement can be worked out, it now seems inevitable that the obliteration of Cambodia will be completed. That obliteration, if it is allowed to happen, will not be easy to explain to our children. Eventually, indeed, the death of Cambodia will be seen as one of the greatest crimes of the twentieth century. What will seem even more incomprehensible and unforgivable is that it took place not suddenly, unexpectedly, over night, but during ten years.

The manner in which the Cambodian people have been abused has differed from year to year, and the race and ideology of its assailants have altered, but throughout those ten years there was at least one constant. While tears were wept by prominent crocodiles (Kissinger, Pol Pot, Pham Van Dong have all dabbed their eyes), cruel and unusual punishments were inflicted again and again on ordinary Cambodians. Public opinion and relief agencies in the West have finally been aroused; but the irony is that our concern—bags of rice, trucks, and children’s clothes—may have only a short-term effect. One of the most dedicated chroniclers of Cambodia’s death now believes that “a new, subtle form of genocide is taking place,” conducted this time by the Vietnamese. To that, charity cannot respond.


One image of Cambodia that pervades each of the last ten years is of brutal forced movements of hungry people. Before Kissinger and Nixon invaded the country in May 1970, over 80 percent of the Cambodian people made their living from land that was more abundant than most. During the next five years the intensity of the US bombing and then the cruelty of the emerging Khmer Rouge forced about half of the seven million people to flee from their homes, their pagodas, into the towns. A great many more were dispersed through the countryside itself. In 1975 the victorious Khmer Rouge emptied the towns at gunpoint. But few people were allowed to go home; harsh new work camps were established throughout the country in a fearful atmosphere of murder, disease, starvation, and frantic labor. Further huge, disruptive movements of people were enforced during the next four years.

After the Vietnamese invasion of January 1979, the Khmer Rouge fled to the mountains and jungles whence they had emerged a bare four years before. Since then they have fought a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese similar to the war they fought against the American-backed regime of General Lon Nol. The Vietnamese army of some 200,000 soldiers has not been able to crush them any more than Lon Nol could; now new noncommunist resistance groups, some apparently led by former followers of Sihanouk and Lon Nol, have sprung up in the west of the country.

Throughout this year hundreds of thousands of the survivors have straggled through the havoc of the new war in search of homes, families, lives that were almost all gone forever. As a result of this new movement and the widespread fighting, very little rice has been planted. Now many of the Khmer people who can still move are searching for food. About half a million, in terrible condition, are camped along the Thai border and may soon break into Thailand. Thousands more are waiting listlessly in the wreckage of a society for help that does not come. Almost everywhere rice is in short supply. All the illnesses associated with severe malnutrition—tuberculosis, pestilence, chronic dysentery—abound. People often appear too exhausted to farm or fish. Nor do they have the tools to do so.

Foreign relief workers have been stunned by the emptiness of Cambodia. They found no forklift trucks at the airport, no cranes at the seaport. Fishing nets have vanished; so have fishing boats, hoes, family cooking utensils. There are few trucks left in the country, roads are almost all badly damaged, bridges are down. There are many more women than men in Cambodia now; there do not seem to be very many children under the age of five. Some relief workers say that the people seem traumatized, dazed by the extraordinary experiences they have suffered and suffer still.


One instructive result of the Vietnamese invasion has been the scramble among members of the Western European left to change their positions. Many who had held back criticism of Khmer Rouge rule have become Pol Pot’s most vociferous critics. Indeed, charges of “genocide” and “three million dead” seem to come more often today from the French Communist Party and its friends on the left than from anywhere else. More surprisingly, some of the international relief agencies have accepted without question all the details of the anti-Khmer Rouge propaganda issued by the Vietnamese client government.


The Vietnamese have certainly capitalized with great skill on the record of Pol Pot. An obligatory stop for visitors to Phnom Penh is a school which, the Vietnamese say, was a Khmer Rouge torture chamber. One finds there photographs and piles of clothing of the dead, instruments of torture, bloodstains and matted hair on the floor. No one can doubt that the Khmer Rouge tortured people, but whether there was an “Asian Auschwitz” in this particular place and with these precise methods remains uncertain. After all, the Vietnamese point to “bloodstains” in the room in the former Hotel Royale where they say the British lecturer Malcolm Caldwell was killed last December. In fact the crime occurred in a quite different place.

But whatever the exaggerations of the Vietnamese propaganda machine it was possible to make the claim in January that Hanoi was “liberating” Cambodia from a terror which is still almost incomprehensible. In February I talked in Thailand to refugees from the Sisophon area of western Cambodia. They said that the Vietnamese had treated them well when they entered their villages, distributing rice and cooking utensils. Even though it has been Vietnam’s ambition for centuries to swallow Cambodia, it seemed possible then that they were a lesser enemy of the Cambodian people than the Khmer Rouge.

Now the awful possibility arises that they may not be. Indeed, there have been reports that they are treating the Cambodians with almost as much contempt as the previous regime did. Nevertheless, the myth of the “liberating” Vietnamese has grown. The story has been assiduously spread by Vietnamese propagandists that the present food crisis is merely the fault of Western governments playing the China card—and so refusing to recognize the Vietnamese client government of Heng Samrin—while international relief agencies have cravenly followed suit, thus refusing to help that regime help the people. But if there is a famine in Cambodia today it is principally the Vietnamese that must bear the immediate responsibility.

This is not to deny that responsibility is widely shared. The policy of the Chinese—to fight Vietnam to the last Cambodian—has been, as so often, utterly cynical; too many in the West have been willing to accept its premises. Moreover, officials in Washington tended to dismiss predictions of famine in the early summer of 1979 or to play them down. Cambodia’s principal rice crop is harvested at the end of the year. The rice has to be planted after the monsoons of early summer soften the earth. This year little planting took place. Henry Kamm of The New York Times—who has tried incessantly and eloquently to awaken the world to the Cambodian disaster—reported on June 6 from Bangkok that “all accounts from the isolated country suggest that farmers enjoy no security in the fields, that there is little seed, no fertilizer or pesticide and no transport…. Cambodians will soon run out of rice. Many may already be starving.”

The warnings came not only from Kamm. Washington had satellite photographs which showed that, at best, only 40 percent of the paddies were cultivated. It also had insistent pleas from the US Embassy in Bangkok. There the ambassador, Morton Abramowitz, has spent much of his time tirelessly arguing the cause of the Cambodian people to his own and the Thai government. With the Thais he has had considerable success. Bangkok has now reversed its earlier policy of forcing refugees back to almost certain death in Cambodia.1 But the initial response in Washington was lackadaisical. When I spoke to State Department experts in June, they assured me that talk of starvation was alarmist. But the reports from Bangkok? Ah, I was told, they are based only on refugee accounts from a limited area.

As Elizabeth Becker of the Washington Post has pointed out, similar reports were considered an adequate basis for Jimmy Carter to denounce the Khmer Rouge as “the world’s worst violators of human rights” in 1978.2 But in the summer of 1979 officials were much more concerned to persuade other countries to cut off aid to the Vietnamese invaders of Cambodia—and persecutors of the boat people—than to examine the situation in Cambodia itself. As Ms. Becker observed, had the US government acknowledged the threat of famine it would have been compelled to help feed those under Vietnamese control and thus also help to relieve Vietnam of that responsibility. And the State Department wanted to avoid any appearance of giving assistance to the Vietnamese.


The Vietnamese themselves, moreover, discouraged some of the international efforts to prevent famine. The International Red Cross asked for permission to visit Cambodia in February. I was not until the end of July that one Red Cross official and one from UNICEF were allowed to travel from Saigon for a few days. The Red Cross submitted a detailed relief plan on August 5. It took the view that the Vietnamese army would inevitably have to play a large part in distributing aid. It asked to station six people in Phnom Penh to attempt to monitor distribution. There was no reply.

For almost three months—during August, September, and October—the Vietnamese and Heng Samrin governments gave different and sometimes conflicting signals about their attitudes to relief. One major problem was that both unicef and the Red Cross insisted that they must help civilians on both sides of the war—including people under Khmer Rouge control in the west of the country. This was rejected as wholly unacceptable in Phnom Penh and Hanoi: both branded aid to the western regions as an imperialist plot to help China’s ally survive and prosper. And in fact, much of the food taken across the Thai border has gone straight to the Khmer Rouge cadres.

The international relief agency Oxfam took a different approach to that of the Red Cross and UNICEF. Its experience is instructive. At the end of August an Oxfam engineer, Jim Howard, flew to Phnom Penh on a relief plane organized by a left-wing French group, and underwritten by Oxfam. He found the experience harrowing. “Visited small clinic at Kilometer 7,” he noted in his log, “absolutely no drugs or medicines—serious cases of starvation—clearly just dying for lack of food. One young woman who had just aborted lying on a filthy bed—the bloody remains put in a plastic bag by the side of her—she was still hemorrhaging badly. The hundreds of children were all marasmic—much skin disease, baldness, discolored hair and great fear in the whole population.”

At an orphanage in the Providence High School, he found “five hundred children, many starving and too weak to stand. Quite terrible conditions for children receiving one meal a day of plain rice soup with stewed banana leaves….” On Route 5 he watched people being turned away from Phnom Penh by the officials in charge: “what despair for those involved. I watched an exhausted woman with two small boys pulling a wooden box containing a few pathetic belongings back down the road they had already traveled to Phnom Penh in hope and anticipation of relief.”

At another clinic “for the first time I saw an adult cry. The lack of tears had been noticeable to me over the week—people seemed too hurt to cry. The adult was in fact the woman doctor in charge of the clinic and when she realized we were there as friends and had brought in modest relief supplies—her lips and hands quivered and we were all shattered by the tragedy of it all.”

At the 7th of January Hospital in Phnom Penh, he described “terrible conditions—children in bed in filthy rags dying with starvation—no drugs—no food…. The TB allied to starvation gives the people a Belsen-like appearance. In one ward a boy of thirteen tied down to the bed because he was going insane—many children now orphans—or can’t find families—and a lot of nervous twitches and spasms to be seen among the people. The face of one small boy of eighteen months was in a state of destruction by what appeared to be infected skin and flesh which had broken down under severe kwashiorkor—his eyes full of pus, held in the arms of his five-year-old sister…. I find this sort of thing very tough to take—and this situation must be applicable to hundreds of thousands of Kampuchean people today.”

Out on Route 4. “The villages visited all contained starving people and clearly many of the people I saw couldn’t possibly survive several more months on what they had available. Most had a tiny rice ration of 3 kg per month—and they were eating wild tree pods and cooking banana stems. This was starvation at the worst Biafra level.”

Howard said that he found both the Heng Samrin regime officials and Vietnamese officials helpful, and also anxious for help. Oxfam’s charter is less constraining than that of either unicef or the Red Cross; it decided to do whatever it could to aid those under Heng Samrin. In October its director-general, Brian Walker, drew up an agreement with the government under which Oxfam would lead a consortium of thirty-one non-governmental relief organizations. The conditions were that the organizations must provide a specific, detailed relief program; that the consortium must not “interfere in the internal political affairs of Kampuchea” and, in particular, not give any relief to the Pol Pot forces; and that distribution would be carried out by Heng Samrin officials “in cooperation with” members of the relief organizations.

The nature of Cambodia’s immediate needs can be gleaned from Oxfam’s first shopping list. It recommended for the four-and-a-half million estimated population controlled by Heng Samrin, 70,000 tons of rice and maize. For supplementary feeding of 2,000 people in hospitals and orphanages, 450 tons of rice, 35 tons of sugar, 35 tons of oil, 75 tons of skimmed milk; and 5 tons of dried milk. Also: 50 five-to-ten-ton diesel trucks; 4 Land Rovers; forklift trucks and other unloading equipment; 17,000 tons of rice seed; 1,800 tons of maize seed; 70 tons of soya beans; seed for white radishes, cabbages, cauliflower, chinese cabbages, asparagus, onions. Fifty irrigation pumps, one million hand hoes, 1,000 fishing nets, 200 spraying sets, 5 tons of soap, 5,000 mosquito nets, 20 tons of cloth, blankets, school books, pencils, pens, paper, 200 tons of cotton yarn, 50 sewing machines. All would cost about $50 million.

Oxfam’s first relief barge was welcomed with great ceremony by government ministers at the port of Kompong Som on October 14. (Oxfam found, however, that port fees of $8,000 were expected; as a gesture of “goodwill” these were reduced to $3,000 for the first barge.) It took nearly five days for the 1,500 tons of supplies to be unloaded by a weak and unskilled dock force. Oxfam asked to be able to bring barges up the Mekong to Phnom Penh as well, and this request was eventually accepted.

Oxfam found that it had to conduct all its business through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministries of Health, Economy, and Agriculture. Oxfam officials were shocked and moved when they saw the rudimentary level to which Cambodia had been reduced. Everything has to be rebuilt. The ministries have tiny staffs and the few officials in them are often very inexperienced. The inevitable bureaucratic delays are made more acute for some of the foreigners, who must ask permission to move outside their hotel. Kampucheans are forbidden to speak to them without authorization. All aid has to be handed over to the relevant ministry and no close and consistent monitoring of its distribution is allowed. Fortnightly reports are supposed to be submitted to the small teams the aid organizations have been allowed to station in Phnom Penh, and in principle at least, these teams can request on-site inspections in places of their choosing. No one has much confidence that strict monitoring can take place under this system. But despite such restrictions the Red Cross and unicef decided in October discreetly to drop their insistence on close monitoring in order to set up their own aid programs. At the same time the Heng Samrin government apparently dropped its demand that these agencies not send supplies across the Thai border—a demand that had been severely criticized in the press throughout the world.

In November Oxfam officials maintained that they were impressed by the good will of members of the government, and that they believed their aid was reaching the people. An Oxfam doctor, Tim Lusty, who was in Cambodia in October and early November, thought that “the nutritional status of the bulk of the Kampuchean people has improved slightly,” thanks in good part to the aid that had arrived. This was especially true in Phnom Penh itself, where aid from Vietnam and the ussr had been distributed. However, Lusty doubted that the communist countries could have sent 200,000 tons, as the Heng Samrin and Hanoi governments claimed. This would have been logistically impossible: a figure of between 20,000 and 40,000 tons seemed more likely.

On trips within sixty miles of Phnom Penh Lusty saw no sign of famine. However malnutrition was much more serious than in the capital and rice rations were often still less than a kilo per person per month. In Takeo he was shown records of aid distribution that seemed to him accurate.

Even so, Lusty and other aid officials found it disappointing that they were allowed to station so few people in Phnom Penh, and especially that the government refused to allow Oxfam to station foreign doctors and nurses in Cambodia—although a constant theme of its propaganda is that Pol Pot murdered all but about fifty of Cambodia’s own doctors. Lusty himself, moreover, acknowledged that his visits out of Phnom Penh might have been simply on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ “tourist route.”

By the end of November other agencies had become very concerned by such a possibility. In Paris the organizers of the boat Ile de Lumière carried only one load of supplies up to Phnom Penh and then canceled its future trips. Its director argued in Le Monde that the Vietnamese were perpetrating a gigantic fraud: they were using food not to feed but to subjugate the Cambodian people. On November 29 the US State Department suggested that 10,000 of the 13,000 tons of aid already shipped by the West to Cambodia was still in Phnom Penh warehouses. The Department later said such delays in distribution were deliberate.

On November 31 Malcolm Harper, who had spent the last month running Oxfam’s program in Phnom Penh, disputed such charges; he was confident that aid was beginning to reach those for whom it was intended. However Oxfam officials have acknowledged that the first two government reports they received on where aid had gone were “useless.” In early December the organization announced it would press for more stringent monitoring. Oxfam officials are conscious that they have two duties—to the starving people of Cambodia, and to their contributors. British children, for example, have already raised almost $4 million for Cambodia by giving toys to Oxfam for sale.


The charge that the Vietnamese are now conducting a subtle “genocide” in Cambodia comes from François Ponchaud, the French priest who lived ten years there and was one of the first to alert the world to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge after April 1975. Then, as now, his information came in good part from testimony, by many refugees and reports from those attempting to resist inside Cambodia. Then as now his information was at first decried, and it is well to remember that his early accounts of brutal and widespread repression proved largely correct.

Ponchaud himself stresses that the more recent letters and reports he has received are unconfirmed. (He cannot apply the rule of two sources for every story.) Moreover most of them come from western Cambodia where the resistance to the Vietnamese is fiercest. Apart from the Khmer Rouge, who are now thought to number around 25,000, there is a new group called the National Front for the Liberation of the Khmer People. This is led by Son Sann, a former prime minister under Sihanouk who spent the 1970s in exile in Paris. He is said to have around 5,000 troops inside Cambodia under the command of a former general of Lon Nol, Dien Del, who has been recruiting in Thai refugee camps since February. Son Sann is supported by both China and Thailand, and has a well-run organization in Paris. Another group is called Moulinaka and is led by a man called Kong Sileas; this group claims to be supporting Sihanouk. A third group is led by a man calling himself “Prince Norodom Soryavong,” whose real name is André Okthol. He is a charlatan who has been terrorizing refugees in the one border camp which he controls, and refusing to let them leave for Thailand.

Much of Ponchaud’s information comes from members of these resistance groups, who make clear their antipathy both to the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese. Ponchaud has just received a long letter from a Khmer fighting with Moulinaka who, he says, reported reliably on Khmer Rouge behavior from 1975 onward. His letter gives a grim and detailed report. On the famine he says,

It is generalized throughout Cambodia, and in some places it began as early as June. It is killing Cambodians—several hundreds in Battambang province…. In the Thmar Puok sector [east of Aranyaprathet on the Thai border] we survived till August. Now there is nothing on which to survive. People are ready to flee for the frontier but thanks to international aid (coming through Thailand) we have received fifty tons of rice since September…for several thousand people. Resupplying is very difficult because the Vietnamese control the roads. Deeper inside the country humanitarian aid does not arrive at all.

By February 1980 there will be nothing at all to eat. Very little land has been cultivated…. Drought has also been very serious. Normally it rains from July to September; this year it began to rain in October…. Next year there will be many more deaths from hunger than this year. And I can say that if there is no humanitarian aid, next year will be the end of the Cambodians. We will die of hunger, we will kill ourselves, we will die from all sorts of diseases….

Among the individual accounts of present conditions that Ponchaud has collected there are some allegations that constantly recur. His informants repeatedly describe the continuing brutality of the Khmer Rouge who seize much of the food sent over the Thai frontier. Of the Vietnamese they say that in order to exploit the food weapon fully some Vietnamese cadres have prevented peasants from harvesting their own rice (to the point of shooting them). They charge that the Vietnamese distribute aid to people they favor and that food and other aid is sometimes sold rather than given away. (Under Pol Pot there was no money. Gold, however, was hoarded whenever possible. Now, at least in western Cambodia, there appears to be a flourishing and extortionate black market fueled by speculators and contraband crossing from Thailand.) The reports received by Ponchaud describe such practices vividly:

—“On September 6 three C-130s landed at Battambang carrying 250 sacks of rice and cooking pots. These were taken to the villages of Vat Kor, Vat Kdol, Anlong Vel, and were sold to rich people—interpreters and others who lived with the Vietnamese. These then resold the rice to villagers for twice the price….”

—A report of October 21 said that “international aid is not reaching the people. But the Vietnamese are bartering it for cattle…. One sack of rice per beast. The animals are often flown back to Vietnam.”

—A report of October 10 said that on September 20 the Vietnamese stole 100 sacks of rice from Cambodians in the village of Svay Chec, district of Thmar Pouk.

—“A young man from Takeo, Am, 19, says that the famine is very serious there. The Vietnamese are refusing to let people find food. There are a lot of Khmer Rouge there. People are fleeing toward Thailand. The Vietnamese are not stopping them but won’t allow them to take anything with them.”

—“On the subject of international aid: According to Say, whose nephew has just arrived from Phnom Penh, there is good reason for anger. The Vietnamese effectively distribute 15 kilos of rice per person, but then go to houses and steal everything at gunpoint, leaving only one or two boxes.”

—“On October 16 the Vietnamese brought 45 lorries of rice and sold it to merchants. They then sold four of the lorries. On October 17 they distributed 2 1/2 boxes of rice per family in the village of Rumchek. There was not enough for everyone.”

—A report of July 7 said that the Vietnamese were giving no medical help to the people; instead they were selling medicines for gold.

—“On August 31 some foreigners (French and American) came to Siem Reap. The Vietnamese hid until they left. According to a doctor with the Vietnamese in Siem Reap, on October 30 one hundred tons of international aid arrived; the Vietnamese sold some of it to the Cambodians, but most was taken by the Vietnamese.”

—“On October 15 the Vietnamese shot five people trying to harvest their own rice in the commune of Phnom Thom, near Mongkolborey…. On October 20 the Vietnamese commander in Phnom Tauch, Mongkolborey, was asked about humanitarian aid. He replied, ‘There isn’t any for the people of Cambodia, because it’s being given for the Vietnamese. If the Cambodians want any they should ask for it from Thailand.’ ”

—A report of October 27 said, “The [local] rice is ready [for harvest] but the Vietnamese do not allow it to be harvested and are mining the paddies. They are rounding up people from 15 to 40 to send them as soldiers to fight the Chinese, replacing Vietnamese troops who are being sent to Cambodia…. Famine is spreading. In Battambang, south of the Kor pagoda, people are dying of hunger one after another….”

—“On October 27 the Vietnamese collected people of Phum Vat Kor, Phum Vat Ta Meum, Phum O Damban and forbade them to harvest their rice. They said this rice belonged to the Vietnamese because Kampuchea had eaten a lot of Vietnamese rice.”

As Ponchaud says, the provenance of these reports should be remembered when they are assessed. Similar accounts, however, have recently been published in the New York Times and Washington Post. It might be argued that such stories are predictable in that they reflect traditional Khmer hostility toward the Vietnamese. But that hostility is mutual, and when one considers the history of recent centuries there is scant reason to suppose that the Vietnamese would now behave very differently from the way that Ponchaud’s correspondents describe. When Vietnam last dominated Cambodia, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Vietnamese emperor Ming Mang wrote to his general Truong Minh Giang:

Sometimes the Cambodians are loyal; at other times they betray us. We helped them when they were suffering and lifted them out of the mud…. Now they are rebellious: I am so angry that my hair stands upright…. Hundreds of knives should be used against them, to chop them up, to dismember them….

Then Cambodia was saved from Vietnam only by the protectorate the French imposed and maintained until 1954. Nothing the Vietnamese have done since 1954 has suggested conspicuous concern for the well-being of the Cambodian people.


Even if some of Ponchaud’s informants are mistaken, biased, or deliberately misleading, humanitarian aid—essential in the short term—is insufficient. Only determined political action can save Cambodia. Perhaps it is too late. Perhaps the French protectorate merely delayed a process which is all the more inevitable now that Vietnam has fifty-one million people who are short of rice, while Cambodia’s population of only an estimated 4.5 million lives in a highly fertile region. But we cannot complacently accept that hypothesis; the Cambodian people will not survive if we do. And even if it is only in their self-interest, other powers must help Cambodia regain its independence. Continued Vietnamese domination will neither bring peace to Cambodia nor stabilize the region.

At the moment the prospects for political compromise do not look good. Vietnam has said that the situation in Cambodia is “irreversible” while China says it is “intolerable.” The political, military, and diplomatic impasses appear complete. But most of the parties to the conflict do have some persuasive internal reasons for compromise.

For Vietnam the invasion has been far more costly than expected. It deploys twenty divisions, some 200,000 men, in Cambodia and yet it has not been able to defeat the Khmer Rouge. It also now has to keep its troops in a state of alert along the border with China. The “punishment” China inflicted last February was not very successful militarily (indeed it revealed serious weaknesses in the Red Army’s Command and logistical structures) but it imposed a broad swath of destruction upon northern Vietnam. China has made it abundantly clear that so long as Vietnam remains in Cambodia it will continue to arm all and any resistance groups. The Vietnamese cannot look to a quick victory; they find themselves in a similar position to that of the United States in Vietnam—even to the extent that their enemies enjoy “sanctuaries” across the border, in Thailand.

China has also warned that a second “punishment” is on the way. Instead of being a frontal assault this might take place in Laos, where the Chinese are continually attempting to encourage discontent and rebellion against the Vietnamese-dominated regime by the highland tribes, and where Vietnamese troops are already tied down by vicious skirmishing. Recently China accepted 10,000 Laotian refugees from Thailand. The intention, it appears, is to train them and to re-infiltrate them into Laos to fight the Vietnamese. There are other reports that China is prepared to launch air strikes against the Vietnamese seaport of Haiphong.

A continued state of war in Cambodia and Laos and near war with China will cause the Vietnamese economy to atrophy further. The nation will become increasingly dependent upon the USSR. That cannot really be in Hanoi’s interests. As for Moscow, its aid to Vietnam is said in Eastern Europe to be putting strains upon the resources of COMECON, whose members were not very enthusiastic about Vietnam joining their organization. Notwithstanding Russia’s obsession with China, in the long run it might seem more important for the USSR to satisfy the Poles and the Hungarians than to feed the expansionism of the Vietnamese.

Chinese interest in a settlement is less obvious. It costs Peking very little to sustain resistance in Cambodia. With several hundred thousand refugees along the border (probably about to cross into Thailand) there will be an everlasting pool of fighters to send back—as with the Palestinians. A weak Vietnam is just what the Chinese hope to see. On the other hand, the Khmer Rouge are hardly a strong diplomatic ally and they will increasingly lose international support. Australia has just announced that it intends to withdraw recognition from Pol Pot and the British government has just done so.

Western interests in a settlement are urgent. Without a settlement ASEAN is threatened. Thailand faces an immediate military threat while the Vietnamese army is on its border and while it continues to give support and sanctuary to resistance groups. Following the logic employed by Nixon and Kissinger in 1970 the Vietnamese might well attack its enemies by invading Thailand itself. Certainly Vietnam now has more interest than ever in securing, by whatever means are at its disposal, a “friendly” government in Thailand.

As long as the war continues hundreds of thousands more Cambodians will die and refugees will continue to flee Cambodia, and Laos, in large numbers to Thailand. It is widely feared that the worst famine will come in the spring. The Thais may be host to over a million Cambodians by early next year. At the same time the disruption of the Vietnamese economy, aggravated by Hanoi’s military involvement in Cambodia and Laos, will probably cause many more boat people to flee—to Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines, with all the costs and burdens that their arrival will impose. This is one point at which China’s interests should coincide with the West’s: China too wants a strong ASEAN.

The urgent case for an international conference should be clear. Sihanouk, who is now in Paris en route to the United States, argues that the best plan would be to reconvene the Geneva Conference of 1954, when the neutralization of Cambodia and Laos was agreed upon. He argues that since the 1954 machinery exists (it was used again for Laos in 1962) it should be made use of, with the British and Russians as co-chairmen. At the end of November I saw him in Paris. He said: “Nineteen fifty-four was not perfect, but it was something good; it provides a solid basis. I would propose to add Yugoslavia to the participants, as the representative and symbol of the non-aligned movement. Marshal Tito is happily alive; we must use him to help us. We must also add Australia, New Zealand, the ASEAN countries and Japan. They are in the region and so their interests are involved.”

Sihanouk has reluctantly concluded that only military opposition will persuade the Vietnamese to negotiate on Cambodia. “The fertile soil of Cambodia is delicious for the Vietnamese,” he says. “They do not want to spit it out.” He is convinced that Hanoi is deliberately starving Cambodia. Sihanouk has tried three times in the last few months to discuss a compromise; his third and last letter to Pham Van Dong was returned unopened from the Vietnamese embassy in Peking. Now he is anxious to persuade Western governments to drop Pol Pot and turn toward himself. He already has the support of some of the resistance groups in Cambodia and is negotiating with Son Sann.

So far only the French (who were previously trying—vainly—to work with the Vietnamese) have accepted Sihanouk’s proposal. Once he can persuade the British and the American governments to do so, he feels, ASEAN and then China might follow.3 It is only when Vietnam and the USSR appear to be isolated that they are likely to agree.

If Cambodia is to survive it seems necessary that:

—Humanitarian aid should be expanded; without it, there will be almost no survivors whose future could be discussed at a conference. But the relief agencies must continue to demand proper facilities for monitoring. Western governments must do more to convince Hanoi that only by allowing more aid and better monitoring can it unequivocally show its good intentions. Aid sent across the Thai border must be subject to equally strict control. Apart from food, a vast reconstruction program for the entire society is urgently needed.

—Western and other countries should drop recognition of Pol Pot, without recognizing Heng Samrin. Pol Pot should be removed from the United Nations.

—France, the United States, Britain, and other Western countries should begin immediate discussions with China, the ASEAN countries, and members of the nonaligned movement about the format for an international conference. The conference would need to provide that Vietnam withdraw its troops from Cambodia and agree to the restoration of genuine neutrality; that China agree to some form of nonaggression pact with Vietnam and not to attack it through Laos; that the West and Japan provide a new “Marshall Plan” for all of Indochina in an attempt to heal the wounds of the successive wars.

This is a great deal to achieve, particularly in view of other pressing international concerns today. But it must be attempted. At the United Nations Conference on the boat people in July, the Singapore delegate said that to discuss only the humanitarian issues without their political causes was like playing Hamlet without the ghost. He was right. Without some sort of regional settlement the third (or is it the fourth?) Indochina war will become the fourth or the fifth—a war this time without Cambodians, for the Cambodians will hardly exist.(—December 7)

This Issue

January 24, 1980