Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Khmer Rouge's Riches Western Hopes to Keep Pol Pot out of Power in Cambodia May Be Undercut by a $100 Million Slush Fund Available for Buying Weapons and Votes

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Khmer Rouge's Riches Western Hopes to Keep Pol Pot out of Power in Cambodia May Be Undercut by a $100 Million Slush Fund Available for Buying Weapons and Votes

Article excerpt

WHILE attention is focused on the intricacies of the United Nations plan for Cambodia and the difficulties of getting the country's four competing factions to agree to it, the Khmer Rouge are quietly doing business on the Thai-Cambodian border. In the "liberated zones" they control in southwestern Cambodia, they are granting concessions and offering protection to Southeast Asian prospectors and businessmen, most of them from Thailand, who mine rubies and cut timber for lucrative international markets.

The monthly intake of this trade for Pol Pot and his senior officers is estimated at a minimum of $5 million per month. Western analysts believe that their cash reserves exceed $100 million, held in a central fund that is surprisingly free of mid-level pilfering. After running on foreign assistance for more than a decade, the Khmer Rouge are approaching self-sufficiency.

Such economic power could undermine the West's most cherished assumptions about the Cambodian conflict. One tenet holds that it is possible to extinguish the Khmer Rouge threat by persuading China, its longstanding patron, to cut off economic assistance and arms. Estimates of Beijing's aid to the Khmer Rouge vary between $40 million and $80 million annually.

That assistance, however, is rapidly becoming moot. With the Khmer Rouge accumulating an independent income of $60 million per year or more, China's leverage is weakened with each new gem or logging deal.

Even if Beijing stops the flow of arms completely, Pol Pot's commanders in the field would still have an existing cache of weapons, now thought to equal a two-year supply, with which to continue the struggle. And should the Khmer Rouge comply with the terms of the UN plan and surrender those stores in the context of a cease-fire agreement, they would have the ready means to purchase new arms.

A more basic assumption in the West, however, is that the Khmer Rouge might prevail on the battlefield, but they could never win by the ballot box. The UN plan attempts to create a "level playing field," on which the factions submit to the will of the Cambodian people through an open and fair election. Behind that neutral construction, the West is wagering that the Khmer Rouge will be defeated at the polls.

But disproportionate wealth can be a telling factor in the electoral process. In established democracies, the balance is often tipped in favor of the candidate able to finance sweeping media campaigns. In poorer, developing countries with little democratic tradition, the most effective and expedient use of campaign funds can simply be to purchase votes. In the 1988 general elections in Cambodia's wealthier neighbor Thailand, when vote-buying was judged to be widespread, a ballot in the rural areas went for $2 on the average, and in Bangkok for $4. …

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