Poll blow for Khmer Rouge

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 May, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 May, 1993, 12:00am

MILLIONS of Cambodians flocking to the polls under the noses of the Khmer Rouge, who warned them not to vote, have dealt the guerillas a major blow though not a fatal one, experts said.

A military analyst said: ''Events have overtaken the Khmer Rouge. They are in trouble.'' Diplomats say the Khmer Rouge, under whose rule from 1975-79 up to a million Cambodians died, can still launch attacks during the next four days of polling, but the elections they condemned and said they would disrupt look like being an unexpected success.

As more than two million Cambodians went to the polls on the first day of elections, American Ambassador Mr Charles Twining said: ''The Khmer Rouge have failed. This leaves them in the forest and I hope they like it there.'' In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge, who opted out of the peace process last year and refused to disarm even though they signed the 1991 Paris accords, were able to rocket Phnom Penh at will, but no attacks have occurred in the capital.

Most of the raids that have taken place before and during the first two days of the elections were ''cheap'' targets, near Khmer Rouge base areas, or soft targets such as trains.

In Chhuk, 120 kilometres southwest of Phnom Penh, where the Khmer Rouge launched their biggest election attack and threatened to burn the houses of those who voted and kill them on their return, people still proceeded to the polls. They said that although they were afraid, they were not so afraid they would not vote.

An Indian United Nations officer, in Chhuk for seven months, said: ''These people are sons of the soil who know Khmer Rouge strengths and weaknesses. They are afraid when they think of their memories of the '70s, but they are not afraid of the Khmer Route now.'' Reports from elsewhere in Cambodia indicate that people from Khmer Rouge areas were crossing into areas outside the control of the forces of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge ''brother number one'', in order to vote.

In other places, the Khmer Rouge have permitted people to vote, asking only that they cast their ballots for the royalist party, known as Funcinpec.

A senior UN military analyst said yesterday the Khmer Rouge had re-mobilised some forces in the past few months, and their strength may have gone from 10,000 to 12,000.

''But many of the new recruits are 13-and 14-year-old boys with little training,'' he said.

When they captured Phnom Penh in April 1975, the guerillas had 40,000 regular troops.

Elsewhere, local Khmer Rouge officers have gone into business with their enemies, the cadres of the Phnom Penh regime.

A UN analyst said: ''They will receive a message from HQ to attack a Phnom Penh regime post, fire off a few rounds at random, then report back they have destroyed the enemy position.'' Exports say the Khmer Rouge have still the ability to hit province capitals such as Siem Reap, near the ruins of Angkor, as they did this month, but are not able to hold them.

A UN analyst said: ''The forces of the Phnom Penh Government and UN security have been too much for them.'' War-weariness in Khmer Rouge ranks, after more than two decades of war and political terror, is also beginning to tell, experts say.

The Khmer Rouge may also be holding back in the hope that a win for the royalist Funcinpec party could, under that party's policy of reconciliation, bring them back into the government.

Although the Khmer Rouge are likely to be around yet for years, they may become increasingly isolated.

A national government emerging from elections is likely to receive international support in building a new army.

Still, with an unpredictable force such as the Khmer Rouge, caution remains.

UN spokesman Mr Eric Falt said: ''General optimism continues to be the rule. But anything can happen. It is still too early to rejoice.''