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UN must protect Cambodia from Khmer Rouge

I was three years old in 1975 when Khmer Rouge guerrillas overran Cambodia, and at the time, the political ramifications of this power play startled me. No one in the world really likes the Khmer Rouge -- they're unusual people -- and when the Vietnamese overran Cambodia in 1979, we were all happy to see the wackos go.

But, as in every other malaria-infested Southeast Asian war zone, nothing is ever permanent in Cambodia. The Vietnamese, under intense international pressure, withdrew a few years ago, leaving a political mess. Several factions are now contending for power: the Vietnamese-backed dictatorship, guerrilla forces of his highness Prince Sihanouk of the royal monarchy and the heavily Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge. After lots of political jockeying, though, the groups involved have reached a settlement. The United Nations will oversee a transitional administration in Cambodia for the next 18 months, until real elections can be held. After those elections the Khmer Rouge will stream into Cambodia from base camps over the border and kill everyone in the country.

I'm not kidding -- they really do this sort of thing. Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge, a bizarre breed of traumatized refugees, trigger-happy social misfits and leftists with hormonal imbalances, wiped out a million of their own people -- individuals, the Khmer Rouge concluded, who were exuding like, some major negative vibes, man. Armed by China and to some extent, the US-supported Sihanouk, they pose a serious threat to the fledgling peace movement in Cambodia.

The UN plan calls for the warring factions in Cambodia to disarm, but they probably won't, especially the Khmer Rouge. The rebels like to gamble -- really -- they're fun-loving people. One of their most cherished games, popularized during their assault on the Cambodian capital on Phnom Penh in 1975, involves guessing the number of swings it takes to crack a skull with a stick.

The goal of all this negotiation, to some extent, is to coax the Cambodians who fled the war zone in the 1970s and '80s into returning. Cambodian refugees, though packed into Thai border camps, won't return to their homeland until it is safe there. With four million mines littering the countryside and rebels streaming over the border, present-day Cambodia is far from secure.

Sure, the UN has sent in some peacekeepers. But 37 Austrian soldiers, armed with sausages, are no match for 30,000 Khmer Rouge. If the UN really wants to help Cambodia rebuild itself, it must do more.

A good way to start is to seal the Cambodian border, now, before the Khmer Rouge figure out what's going on. A heavily-armed UN force patrolling the border could keep armed Khmer Rouge, opium traders and arms dealers out, and give Cambodia time to incubate. In addition, any participation in the transitional government by the Khmer Rouge, the dictatorship, or other factions should be conditional on their aid in removing the mines from Cambodia. The United Nations can't and shouldn't build Cambodia's new government -- the Cambodians must. The international community can, however, help keep the peace long enough for Cambodian democracy to flower.


Matthew H. Hersch, a sophomore in the Department of Physics, is an opinion editor of The Tech.


37 Austrian soldiers, armed with sausages, are no match for 30,000 Khmer Rouge.