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Thursday, April 16, 1998 Published at 14:21 GMT 15:21 UK

World: South Asia

Khmer Rouge approach last stand
image: [ The Khmer Rouge flag is in the descent ]
The Khmer Rouge flag is in the descent

Exiled to the Cambodian jungle, dogged by defections, roundly despised by their countrymen and with their figurehead imprisoned and now dead, the Khmer Rouge should rightly be on the verge of extinction.

Most of the evidence would suggest this to be the case. But, as any seasoned commentator on the south-east Asian country will confirm, in Cambodia few things are certain.

The ruthless architects of a four-year reign of terror in the 1970s that left more than one million citizens dead, the Khmer Rouge have remained a dark and mysterious force in Cambodian affairs.

Retreat to the north

Ousted from the capital, Phnom Penh in 1979 by the Vietnamese, Pol Pot's feared army retreated to its traditional stronghold in the north of the country.

[ image: Anling Veng: former Khmer Rouge bastion]
Anling Veng: former Khmer Rouge bastion
There it has remained for almost 20 years, making fiefdoms out of refugee camps along the border with Thailand.

But in recent years the once formidable fighting machine has been drastically depleted and now they are as intent on fighting each other as any outside force.

Estimates are sketchy, but it seems that the steely army which once fought a protracted guerrilla war all the way to the capital now numbers no more than 5,000.

Over the past 18 months, mass defections and desertions have made a big dent on Khmer Rouge numbers. The most recent was in March when Commander Ung Huen took up to 600 fighting men over to the government side.

Bastion captured

It came shortly after the guerrillas suffered a crushing blow with the fall of Anlong Veng, which, apart from a period of short-lived government occupation in 1994, had been the rebels' bastion for years.

[ image: Movement undermined by defections]
Movement undermined by defections
Outside of that area, the Khmer Rouge have allied themselves to troops loyal to ousted prime minister Prince Ranariddh. His forces are currently battling the government army of Hun Sen, says Lucy Elkin, South East Asia specialist at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

"The Khmer Rouge is now at an all-time low. Its troops are poorly armed and they are relatively few in number," she says.

Steve Heder, of London's School of Oriental and African Studies agrees. The forces have "their backs up against the wall" he says.

As well as ammunition shortages, anti-malarial drugs and food are scarce, says Mr Heder.

Political prospects

There have been attempts by the younger guard to modernise and refashion the Khmer Rouge as a political force in Cambodia.

[ image: Stronghold of Anlong Veng: fell to government troops]
Stronghold of Anlong Veng: fell to government troops
But according to Miss Elkin, they stand little chance of making any headway in the forthcoming July national elections.

"They have been outlawed as a political group since 1994 and the chance of them having any political popularity is out of the question," she says.

Simon Taylor of the environmental and human rights agency Global Witness, points out the Khmer Rouge has also been forced to give up its once prosperous timber trade with Thailand.

"In early 1995 they were making between US$10m and $20m per month from illegal sales of timber farmed around the whole northern and western border," says Mr Taylor.

"That money was spent on all sorts of things, including arms . But that has been closed off and their income dried up. That has been instrumental in the depletion of the Khmer Rouge."


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