Editorial: Can Leopards Change Their Spots?

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Since World War II, the United States has frequently flexed its political muscles by assessing which side in a given struggle is likely to come out victorious and then backing it. If the winner is not obvious, then all too often the US policy has been to support both sides of a conflict so that "our" team will be the one in power.

But what price do we pay for such short-sighted political self-interest? The answer is probably no-where clearer than in Cambodia. A foreign policy that is based only on political alliance and expediency rather than on the values purported to be the expediency rather than on the values purported to be the basis of that policy in fact demonstrates the true motives of policy makers. What this means in Cambodia is that the United States is helping the Khmer Rouge - under whose rule in 1975-1979 more than 1 million people were killed - regain power.

The Khmer Rouge has been armed by China in order to continue a proxy war in China's longstanding feud with Vietnam. The United States, seeking to improve relations with China and still smarting from its own defeat in Vietnam, provided nonlethal assistance to the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s, including such activities as search-and-destroy training missions by US Navy Seals, one of the most elite US military combat units. So much for "nonlethal" assistance.

Surprisingly, the United States, beginning with the human rights-conscious Carter Administration, helped the Khmer Rouge by keeping its representative in Cambodia's seat at the United Nations while at the same time denying the Vietnamese-backed Hun Sen government that same recognition.

The United States has certainly not pressured Thailand to stop its transshipments of arms to the Khmer Rouge. It is not clear who is paying for the weapons or where they are all coming from; however, it is known that arms supplied by the United States to noncommunist opposition groups end up in Khmer Rouge hands.

One of the saddest facts of all, however, is that the United States' policy toward the Khmer Rouge seems to be predicated on the desire to do nothing that will offend China. Meanwhile China has increased both the quantity and quality of its weapons shipments to the Khmer Rouge, including such items as anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers.

Unfortunately, the United States is part of the problem in Cambodia, not the solution. American anger over the loss of the Vietnam War and fears over the expansion of Vietnamese and Soviet influence throughout Southeast Asia need to be reexamined in light of changes within the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of most Vietnamese troops from Cambodia in late 1989.

Whether these two leopards - the United States and the Khmer Rouge - have changed their spots is perhaps too early to tell. The Khmer Rouge gives no indication of any change. The same war criminals of 1975 run the Khmer Rouge today, and they have an army of 40,000 along the Thai-Cambodian border. Recent reports indicate that Khmer Rouge tactics, too, remain the same: killing unarmed civilians, recruiting - at gunpoint - new "converts," forcing civilians to carry military equipment through known mine fields (internationally supplied food is withheld from those who refuse).

That the Khmer Rouge is strong is beyond doubt. That it strikes a resonant nationalist and anti-Vietnamese chord with many Cambodians is equally clear. But can we afford to forget that one out of every seven people perished under the Khmer Rouge - 15 percent of the population - in only four years and that those responsible were never brought to justice?

The Khmer Rouge has not changed its spots. The question is, Will the United States change? It is time that our foreign policy reflect fundamental human values, not the least of which is condemnation of genocide, and not simply try to pick the winner in a conflict.

We can never forget that 15 percent.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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