Larry Jagan reports on concern at the growing strength of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the resulting worries of a return to the "killing fields".
MOST Cambodians increasingly fear a return to The Killing Fields now that the Vietnamese troops have finally withdrawn from their country.
Pol Pot's reign of terror between 1975-79 which devastated the country and left over a million dead, was brought to an end when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia ten years ago.
"The danger of a return of the Khmer Rouge is now very real," says Margaret Roden, Christian Aid's area secretary in Northern Ireland. She recently returned from Cambodia after visiting development projects in the country, including Christian Aid's partner, CIDSE, a consortium of Catholic aid agencies. Many of the Cambodians she met were convinced that the Khmer Rouge were coming back.
One man, who lost his whole family during the Pol Pot era, shrugged his shoulders sadly and told her that he was sure history would repeat itself. The ordinary Khmer people she met, she says, would flee the country if they could. But as one village leader, who also lost his family during the last Khmer Rouge reign, told her: "I have no other choice than to fight to the bitter end."
John Pilger, whose documentary film Year Zero ten years ago first alerted the world to the devastation that Pol Pot's regime had caused in Cambodia, recently returned to Cambodia to make another documentary, Cambodia Year Ten. "The fear hits you as soon as you meet people," says John, "and as you travel around the country there is an underlying menace, a feeling that something awful is about to happen".
CIDSE's representative in Phnom Penh describes the prevailing Cambodian attitude as "uniform trepidation". In the months leading up to the Vietnamese withdrawal he says that Cambodians in Phnom Penh, convinced that the civil war was going to continue and intensify, prepared food stocks and emergency supplies and converting whatever financial assets they had into gold, in readiness for a hasty departure from the country's capital.
For months the Khmer Rouge have been building up their military strength along Cambodia's western border with Thailand. According to aid officials who regularly visit the refugee camps along the border, thousands of civilians have been forced to join the guerrillas, usually as porters or scouts.
One doctor working in the camps said there was increasing evidence of military escalation involving camp inhabitants. He has dealt with an increasing number of bullet wounds and injuries from explosions, mines and rockets.
Although there is a military build-up, most observers believe intensified armed conflict will only be renewed later this year after the guerrillas have prepared their beachheads and assessed the effect of the Vietnamese withdrawal. According to provincial officials there has been an increased campaign of intimidation by the Khmer Rouge in recent months. The burning of houses, destruction of crops and selective executions of local leaders, part of their previous strategy, has been on the increase again.
In July guerrillas shot a former village chief in front of his house some 15 kilometres from Kompong Speu town. The number of military encounters around the provincial capital has increased drastically this year. The local police chief, wounded in one of these attacks, says that his unit has been involved in six or seven engagements with the Khmer Rouge already this year compared to only three last year.
Aid officials in the country privately confirm the increasing number of casualties. Most are the result of Chinese-made, antipersonnel mines that the Khmer Rouge have sown throughout the western provinces. The provincial hospitals in the country's western regions are now so overstretched that many of the new casualties have had to be admitted to Phnom Penh's hospitals.
In a recent joint communique, the 11 development agencies working in Cambodia, including C1DSE, called on their respective governments to prevent the return of the Khmer Rouge. If the international community does not act now there will be "an escalation of the military conflict which will inevitably lead to more suffering," the agencies warned.
They demanded that military aid to all combatants cease, that the Khmer Rouge be disarmed and its leaders tried for genocide, and international recognitionfor the Khmer Rouge he withdtawn by removing the Coalition for Democratic Kampuchea, which it dominates, from their seat at the UN.
Most observers believe that only a speedy diplomatic solution can prevent the Khmer Rouge from causing further havoc. Jim Lester, the Conservative MP for Brostoe, Nottinghamshire, says that a peace proposal along the lines of' the current Namibian solution could also work in Cambodia's case.
He recently returned from a visit to Cambodia arranged jointly by Christian Aid, Trocaire and Oxfam, observing the Vietnamese withdrawal.
But as many point out while the Khmer Rouge are sealed at the UN there will be little opportunity for a real UN initiative. They will continue to block any moves which may give the Hun Sen government in Phnom Penh any sort of diplomatic recognition.
John Pilger is very blunt in his report warning that we must act now for failure to do so would undoubtedly condemn the Cambodian people to a repeat of the killing fields.
Larry Japan is a specialist on Asian affairs and currently a journalist with Christian Aid