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Rebels Still Torment Cambodia 20 Years After Their Rampage

By PHILIP SHENON, Special to The New York Times

NEW YORK TIMES, February 6, 1995

CHOEUNG EK, Cambodia, Feb. 2 - It is said by Cambodians that anyone who doubts the truth of what happened here in 1975 must make the pilgrimage to this tiny village. Because in what was once a fertile rice paddy on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the capital, there is today a grisly and convincing memorial to the frenzied slaughter that erupted across Cambodia 20 years ago this spring.

One visitor needed no convincing at all.

"I was a boy during the Pol Pot times, and I still remember how they would line up people - 10 people, 100 people - and tie their hands and shoot them in the back," said Buntha Krouch, a 25-year-old Cambodian American whose Cambodian mother-in-law had insisted that he make the trip to Choeung Ek.

"You don't forget this."

Mr. Krouch, who fled Cambodia in 1979 and is now an engineering student at Pennsylvania State University, stood transfixed before the Government-built ossuary here: a giant glass pagoda encasing 8,985 human skulls.

These were the victims of the killing fields of Choeung Ek, one site of the death camps organized by the Khmer Rouge, the Maoist-inspired guerrillas whose reign of terror over Cambodia began with the capture of Phnom Penh in April 1975. The skulls were unearthed from deet) pits that are still littered with shards of bone and frayed strips of cloth.

Two decades after they launched their final assault on Phnom Penh and set in motion a crazed peasant revolution that killed hundreds of thousands and perhaps more than one million Cambodians, the Khmer Rouge and their notorious leader, Pol Pot, continue to torment this nation with violence, and with at least the threat of another savage takeover of Cambodia.

Much has changed here in those 20 years: a 1978 Vietnamese invasion that forced the Khmer Rouge back into the jungle, a 1991 peace agreement that was supposed to end the civil war between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese-installed Government, a 1993 election that established the first freely elected Cambodian Government. But Cambodians face a threat that is hauntingly reminiscent of that era.

Then, as now, Pol Pot, the French-educated Cambodian born with the name Saloth Sar, stalks the dense forests, waiting for his chance to grab power from a Government perceived by much of the public as corrupt and incompetent. Then, as now, his most effective weapons are the terror that he can unleash almost at will in the countryside, and the hypnotic loyalty of a handful of ruthless disciples. Then, as now, Pol Pot has powerful friends in the outside world who want him to survive. Today, those friends are in neighboring Thailand.

Some diplomats and certainly many Cambodian officials argue that the Khmer Rouge are growing weaker and more isolated as thousands of Pol Pot's troops have defected.

"The Khmer Rouge will definitely disappear," Foreign Minister Ung Huot said. "It is only a matter of time."

But others find it difficult to be so hopeful, predicting that the guerrillas will plague Cambodia for years, possibly another generation - certainly until Pol Pot is dead.

Attacks-Khmer Rouge Still on Offensive

There are no reliable reports on the whereabouts of Pol Pot, although the shadowy 66-year-old guerrilla leader is believed by foreign intelligence agencies to be living in comfort, shuttling among rebel camps in western Cambodia. Scholars are convinced that Pol Pot remains a dedicated Marxist, and that he holds to a dream of another violent peasant revolution in Cambodia.

His army today has an estimated strength of 5,000 to 10,000 soldiers, far smaller than when his forces overran Phnom Penh in 1975, which the Khmer Rouge named Year Zero because it was supposed to mark a rebirth of Cambodian history. But while the rebel army is too small today to pose any immediate threat to the capital or other large cities, it is capable of wreaking havoc on the Government elected in 1993.

In recent weeks, the Khmer Rouge have attacked dozens of farming villages in western Cambodia, killing at least 100 people, burning homes and crops and slaughtering farm animals. Tens of thousands of people have been made refugees in the area around Battambang, the country's second-largest city, and the Government is struggling to feed them in the midst of a nationwide drought. The United Nations-sponsored elections produced a coalition between the party associated with King Norodom Sihanouk, who has been returned to the throne after most of two decades in exile, and the party associated with the Cambodian leaders installed by Vietnam in 1979.

The new Government is trying to revive Cambodia's shattered economy - living standards are among the most miserable on earth, with most Cambodiap adults earning less than $1 a day and with widespread malnutrition and disease - by enticing foreign investors and tourists here.

"Our policy is to develop the country in order to stop the Khmer Rouge, and the policy of the Khmer Rouge is to try to stop the development to destroy us," Foreign Minister Ung Huot said. The Khmer Rouge want the foreigners out, hoping that an exodus of investors and tourists will insure the Government's collapse. The rebels have begun to attack foreigners, reportedly offering a bounty of $8,000 for every Westerner who is caught or killed. They have taken responsibility for the killing of an American tourist last month near the ancient capital of Angkor. While the Government blames bandits for that killing, there is no doubt that the Khmer Rouge were responsible for the deaths of several other Westerners last year, including three backpackers slain in September after rebels attacked a train in rural southern Cambodia. The three young men - an Australian, a Briton and Frenchman were killed with blows to the head, long the preferred method of execution by the Khmer Rogue because it saves bullets.

The People-Rebels Praised As Uncorrupt

It is difficult to overstate the fear that the Khmer Rouge still arouse among Cambodia's seven million people. It is the rare Cambodian who cannot identify several family members who died what is commonly known here as the Pol Pot time. It is common to find Cambodians who lost everyone. Most of the victims of the Khmer Rouge died from starvation or disease. Thousands of others were executed in killing grounds like Choeung Ek, targets of Pol Pot's paranoid fear that anyone with an education or a special calling - doctors, teachers, businessmen, painters, dancers, Buddhist monks - posed a threat to a revolution meant to glorify peasants.

The fear is a sign of how seriously Cambodia's new Government has failed to inspire confidence that some Cambodians are quietly expressing support for some of the ideals of the Khmer Rouge, sometimes even for the organization itself.

"The Khmer Rouge are not corrupt, and that is why some people still support them," said a 23-year-old student at the University of Phnom Penh, who like many of his classmates did not want his full name used for fear of retaliation from the Government.

"In the Khmer Rouge time, they killed many people, but there was no corruption," he said. "And corruption is the most terrible problem that we have now."

He sat with other students around a formica table in the library of an English language training program that is being underwritten by the Government of Australia. Apart from the classrooms renovated by the Australians, the university is a moldering wreck. The campus buildings were all but dismantled by the Khmer Rouge as part of their vicious purge of intellectuals. In the minds of many students, the slaughter of the 1970's is associated with Pol Pot and his senior henchmen, not with the entire organization. The Khmer Rouge are seen as savage, but they are also seen as nationalistic and honest.

"The corruption is destroying Cambodia, and I think maybe that is a much bigger danger than the Khmer Rouge," another student said. "Pol Pot may be bad, but some of the other Khmer Rogue leaders are not so bad."

Corruption allegations dog most senior officials in the Cambodian Government. Despite paltry government salaries, many live lives of luxury, disappearing on short notice for holidays in Hong Kong, Europe and the United States. The number of expensive European sedans prowling the potholed streets of Phnom Penh defies any explanation other than corruption.

"Today's Cambodia crawls with greed and corruption at the highest levels," warned Julio Jeldres, founder of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, a human rights group. "Corruption creates resentment and inequality and helps dissatisfied people to fall under the spell of the Khmer Rouge."

The Khmer Rouge have clearly struck a chord with many Cambodians in their endless propaganda, heard in rebel radio broadcasts, blaming the nation's problems on Cambodia's traditional enemy, Vietnam, and on the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese who live here. "We all think that Pol Pot hates Vietnam very much, and we agree with him on that," a 19-year-old university student said. "Vietnam will eat up Cambodia if it can."

Foreign Support-Now Thais Help Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge have outlasted almost every other Communist insurgency in Asia. It is a measure of Pol Pot's tenacity, and the greediness of some of Cambodia's neighbors, that the Khmer Rouge still exist. China, the principal foreign patron of the Khmer Rouge in the 1980's, is applauded by diplomats here for having cut off assistance to the rebels. But there is unending suspicion about Thailand, where elements of the Thai military and dozens of logging and gem companies are reported to continue a lucrative border trade with the rebels.

It does not take much searching along the long dusty stretches of the porous border to find Thai traders who acknowledge that they have ignored the Thai Government's demands that they cut off trade with the Khmer Rouge, who control areas of western Cambodia rich in lumber and gems. The trade through Thailand is thought to bring the rebels millions of dollars, enough to continue the fighting indefinitely.

"I think the world lies about the Khmer Rouge - they are really good people," said a Thai gem merchant whose workshop is near the Thai border city of Aranyaprathet.

Giving his name as Mr. Vichi, he held up a blood-red ruby that he said had been sold to him by the Khmer Rouge. He admired the gem as it glistened in the harsh sun.

"Why should I care about the internal problems of Cambodia?" he asked. "That is not my country."

The Thai Government denies that it knows of any border trade, and diplomats acknowledge that the Government of Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai has done more than any of its predecessors to cut off support for the Khmer Rouge. But diplomats say there is still plenty of evidence showing that the trade continues, although curtailed. Cambodian officials say 16 Thai gem-mining companies were digging as recently as last month in rebel-held areas. Some of the best evidence against the Thais has come from recent Khmer Rouge defectors, who say Thailand remains the lifeline for Pol Pot.

Chea Sari, a Khmer Rouge major who defected last fall after 23 years with the rebels, said: "The Thai support the Khmer Rouge 100 percent. They are like an artery that provides blood to the Khmer Rouge."

Changes-Abuses Laid To Local Chiefs

Whatever the threat, there are foreign investors who remain enthusiastic about Cambodia. Beyond lumber and gem-mining, tourism is promising. The stone temples of Angkor, the ancient capital of the Khmer empire, are the greatest archeological wonder in Southeast Asia, and it is commonly said in the travel industry that Cambodia's small population could support itself largely from the hard currency brought here by tourists.

Despite its battlefield struggles with the Khmer Rouge, the army is encouraged by the recent defection of thousands of rebel soldiers under a amnesty program begun last year. The defectors have reported that while the central command of the Khmer Rouge remains loyal to Pol Pot, the once strict chain of command may be dissolving in parts of the countryside.

"The Khmer Rouge were once a very honest organization," said Mr. Chhum Song, who lost an eye to shrapnel while fighting in 1975. "Everywhere that Pol Pot occupied, it was a good place. No brutality, no violence. And we were all brought together by his principle to stop the Vietnamese, get rid of the Vietnamese."

But he explained that in the early 1990's, the Khmer Rouge decentralized authority, allowing local commanders more power to make decisions. Mr. Chhum Song and other defectors say the result was chaos in many provinces, with Khmer Rouge commanders turning to corruption and indiscriminate violence.

"In 1990, many people in the Khmer Rouge became corrupt," he said, "The commanders would begin to tax the villages, tax them for every tree that was cut down. And even with all this money, there was not enough food for us soldiers."

But none of this, he insisted, is a reflection on Pol Pot - "Brother Number One," as he is called in the Khmer Rouge - and his closest deputies.

"There is no hint of corruption about them," Mr. Chhum Song said.

"At the very top of the Khmer Rouge, I believe, there are honest men. They are committed to the same revolution, as always. They do not intend to go away."

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