New Internationalist

The Way Ahead

Issue 084

William Shawcross argues that one of the best ways forward for Indochina now would be the convening of an international conference similar to that held in Geneva in 1954. But he believes that help on the scale of ‘Marshall Aid’ will also be needed if the wounds of successive wars are ever to be healed.

DURING the 1970s the nation of Kampuchea was destroyed. And as the 1980s begin it seems unlikely that the political will to save the survivors will be mustered. One day the destruction of Kampuchea, a man-made disaster, will be seen as one of the greatest crimes of the Twentieth Century. That it should have taken so long for that perception to grow is one of the causes of the disaster.

Throughout 1979 dire predictions were made in the West that those Kampucheans who had survived the last nine years of war and of victorious social engineering by the Khmer Rouge (between two and three million were thought to have died) were threatened by terrible famine. In September international relief began to arrive from the West. It was followed by charges that the food was not being distributed by the client government installed by the Vietnamese occupiers - even that it was being diverted by the Vietnamese for their own use.

The accuracy of such charges was hard to assess, but one agency, Oxfam, which was leading an international consortium of relief into Kampuchea, was confident at the end of 1979 that its own supplies were being distributed as effectively as was possible in a society which had suffered so much destruction through the last decade. Larger agencies, such as the International Red Cross, however, felt unable to continue their food relief programme because vast quantities, about 40,000 tons, were simply piling up in government warehouses.

At the beginning of 1980 it is clear that massive international aid must continue to Kampuchea; indeed, the worst food shortages will probably occur in the spring when the poor harvest of 1979 is exhausted. But food is not enough. What is needed, quickly, is ‘a political compromise. Otherwise Indochina as a whole will remain in turmoil and the fighting will be concentrated in Kampuchea.

The best forum for compromise would seem to be an international conference like that at Geneva in 1954. The Geneva Conference was not a long term success because the great powers, particularly the United States, ignored its provisions. Nonetheless, it did agree on the neutralisation of Kampuchea and it secured, for a time, the withdrawal of Vietnamese communist troops from the country.

Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who is now in the West arguing the case, believes that the 1954 conference should be recalled. He has made a formal request to the British government as co-chairman of the 1954 conference, but the British Foreign Office has hastily backed away from the idea. One real and obvious reason is that the other co-chairman was the Soviet Union. Even before the invasion of Afghanistan it was hard to see much chance of collaboration between Moscow and London. Moreover, in 1954 Moscow and China were allies: now their enmity is one of the principal causes of the continuing conflict in Indochina.

Nonetheless, Sihanouk argues that since the 1954 machinery exists, it should be exploited. The chairman of the conference, once recalled, could be changed. Sihanouk also thinks the membership should be enlarged to include all the countries of the region - the ASEAN nations, Australia and Japan. He would also like to have Yugoslavia as representative of the nonaligned, to lend their considerable influence.

The 1954 format is not the only one. And Sihanouk’s is not the only voice. The French government is now supporting the idea of a conference. Several American politicians, including Senator Edward Kennedy, have called for a conference. The Carter administration is said to be considering it also (or was before Afghanistan). Most importantly, on November 13, 1979 the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on the UN SecretaryGeneral, Kurt Waldheim, to determine how a conference could be set up and to report back ‘at the earliest possible opportunity’. Iran delayed this, and then Afghanistan, but in December 1979 both Waldheim and his secretariat seemed to understand the urgency.

Given the extent of East-West confrontation today, the prospects for compromise in Indochina are not obviously good. But at the same time, the risks of confrontation turning into conflagration are as great in Indochina as anywhere else. Without a settlement in Kampuchea it seems inevitable that the war will continue to widen in a dreadfully vicious circle through the region. The Vietnamese say the situation in Kampuchea is ‘irreversible’. But China says it is ‘intolerable’. The Chinese insist they will continue to arm all and any resistance groups to the Vietnamese - from the Khmer Rouge rightwards. China has also threatened to ‘punish’ Vietnam itself a second time if it does not withdraw from Kampuchea. The first punishment in February 1979 was not a military triumph, but it imposed serious destruction upon northern Vietnam. The Russians, for their part, have warned that they will retaliate against any second such ‘punishment’. Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan must make the Chinese more rather than less eager to launch another attack.

Even if one discounts the risk of Sino-Soviet war, there is a real danger of the fighting spreading. The Khmer Rouge, and other anit-Vietnamese groups, are being given sanctuary in Thailand and the Vietnamese have warned that they will attack them across the border (employing the same logic as Kissinger used to justify the US invasion of Kampuchea in 1970). The United States, for its part, has promised to support Thailand against attack by Vietnam. Thus the terrible spectre of another confrontation between Washington and Hanoi looms.

Already the strains on the immediate region are immense. Thailand now faces the prospect of harbouring up to one million Kampuchean refugees, now camped along the Thai-Kampuchean border. There is a strong possibility that they will be pushed across the border by the fighting. At the same time the continued fighting will further atrophy the Vietnamese economy. Vietnam itself already faces very serious food shortages - and many more ‘boat people’ will try to reach Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia, with all the political and economic costs that their arrival poses. Continuing war weakens ASEAN.

The Chinese, who seek a strong ASEAN to counter Vietnam, nonetheless consider that ‘the situation is not yet mature’ for a conference or compromise. Their policy is to continue to arm Khmer resistance groups. They argue that only when the Vietnamese are persuaded that continued occupation of Kampuchea is too costly will there be any incentive for withdrawal. This argument overlooks the fact that a huge number of the Kampuchean people may die in the meantime.

If the notion of a conference is to be pursued, it should not be forgotten that Vietnam has legitimate security interests. It needs to be assured that a government of Kampuchea will not, like the Khmer Rouge, pursue an aggressive Peking policy designed to weaken Vietnam. It needs the assurance of rice supplies from Kampuchea. Above all, Vietnam needs to reconstruct. The best incentive for compromise that the West and Japan can offer is not continued support of all resistance groups in Kampuchea - the Kampucheans themselves will suffer most from that - but a new ‘Marshall Aid’ programme to all Indochina. A real attempt must be made to heal the wounds of successive wars. Without it there is a real danger that the Kampuchean people, exhausted and diminished, could disappear entirely. For that crime there would not be forgiveness.

William Shaweross is the author of ‘Sideshow’ (see Worth Reading). He was a Harkness Fellow in Washington and covered the Indochina war for the Sunday Times of London.

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