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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

War Games and Plots

It's (nearly) all quiet on the northern front


Go to a map of the area

A LOT IS GOING ON IN CAMBODIA these days. The ousted first prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, returned briefly from exile. His father, the king, is currently visiting from Beijing, where he lives. Preparations for scheduled July elections to the legislature are proceeding, though whether the polls actually take place remains unclear, not least because of the climate of political violence and intimidation prevailing nationwide. And in the northwest of the country, forces loyal to Ranariddh have still to be properly absorbed back into the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) under the control of the prince's archrival, strongman and Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.

It all adds up to a mess -- which has just become messier. In recent days, Phnom Penh has been pounding the bases of the hardline holdouts of the Khmer Rouge (remember them?) in the north, close to the porous border with Thailand. It is an area that the government has in the past overrun, yet then humiliatingly lost. This time, the gains look permanent. Anlong Veng, a hamlet that served as the hardliners' headquarters, has fallen (aided by a major Khmer Rouge mutiny), while another base, a ruined clifftop temple complex called Preah Vihear, has crossed over.

But there are conflicting accounts about the whereabouts of Khmer Rouge heavyweights Ta Mok and Pol Pot. Some RCAF generals, citing radio intercepts, insist Ta Mok (and, it is assumed, Pol Pot) are in Thai territory -- which Bangkok denies. (The Thai military and the Khmer Rouge cooperated closely in the past, particularly during the 1980s when the guerrillas were fighting the Phnom Penh regime installed by Vietnam after Hanoi overthrew the Khmer Rouge government in 1979.) Other reports have them holed up in high ground behind Anlong Veng -- huge escarpments that are virtually impregnable -- with a few hundred battle-hardened fighters. Says defector Col. Yim Phanna: "Ta Mok's forces are holding a defensive position up there." One indicator that the Ta Mok faction may not be in such mortal danger as the government suggests is that Khmer Rouge radio has carried on its daily broadcasts.

But the Khmer Rouge is no longer the player it once was. The guerrilla group has been hit by infighting, defections (to both Ranariddh and Hun Sen forces) and military setbacks. A major faction based in Pailin in the west has pledged loyalty to Hun Sen in return for continued access to logging and gem mines. Ex-commanders occupy senior posts in the RCAF. And Pol Pot, the central Khmer Rouge villain in the Cambodian holocaust of the late 1970s, was suddenly brought out last July for a show trial and officially purged soon after he ordered the brutal killings of a top lieutenant and his family members.

Pol Pot's fall was evidently blessed by his most bloodstained general, Ta Mok, his shadowy deputy, Nuon Chea, and the Khmer Rouge's longtime nominal head of state, Khieu Samphan. If justice had anything to do with the politically inspired deliberations, all three would also have been in the dock. Perhaps for this reason, Nuon Chea later made it clear that there was no question of Pol Pot ever being handed over to any properly convened international tribunal for trial.

The issue has resurfaced for two reasons. One is the possibility, however remote, of Pol Pot finally being captured. The other has to do with an apparent U.S. contingency plan, reported in The New York Times April 9, to bring Pol Pot to book. The Times says, "The Thai government would be willing to take Pol Pot into custody as long as the U.S. agreed to spirit him out within hours of his capture." Bangkok says there have been no formal talks with Washington on the subject.

The international community's most likely course would be to enlarge the competence and jurisdiction of the U.N. tribunals based at The Hague in the Netherlands investigating crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. But time is not on the side of those who want to see Pol Pot tried. He is about 73 and in poor health, and his capture may prove embarrassing. A garrulous Pol Pot could say much about the support he got from some elements of the Thai military, about heavy U.S. bombing of eastern Cambodia which left anywhere from 150,000 to 400,000 citizens dead, and about Beijing's backing through the 1970s and '80s. Some crucial players might prefer him dead to singing in the dock, and a bullet-ridden corpse along the border may be the only form of justice that can be expected. -- By Dominic Faulder, with reporting by Tom Fawthrop


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