PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- There is little doubt Vietnam is finally winding down its 10-year military occupation of Cambodia.
Long-time residents of the Cambodian capital say streets that have been closed for years -- to provide security for high-ranking Vietnamese advisers who lived there -- are opening again.
And, according to Western relief workers, operators of the ferries that move highway traffic across the Mekong River on its way from Phnom Penh to the Vietnamese border say troop movements in recent months have been one way -- toward Vietnam.
Even Bangkok-based observers who have been skeptical of previous withdrawal claims now believe the Vietnamese are on their way out.
"Pressure is building up on the Vietnamese," says one Southeast Asian diplomat in the Thai capital.
He points especially to Vietnam's internal economic problems and to the rapprochement between the Soviet Union, Vietnam's main ally, and China, the principal source of arms for the Khmer Rouge and other groups battling the Vietnamese in Cambodia.
Vietnamese leaders say they decided to withdraw their troops -- now thought by Western observers to number about 82,000, down from about 120,000 at the end of 1987 -- because of discussions between Hanoi and Phnom Penh, not because of international pressures for withdrawal.
Tran Cong Man
"It is our assessment that in the next few years the revolutionary armed forces of Kampuchea (Cambodia) can take on their own defense," argues Tran Cong Man, editor of Vietnam's army newspaper, Quan Doi Nhan Dan. "So we are withdrawing step by step. This means that as the Kampuchean armed forces grow stronger, we withdraw more. ... When they are ready to take on the defense of an area, we withdraw."
But Gareth Porter, a Vietnam specialist at American University in Washington, says Vietnam has other reasons for leaving Cambodia -- reasons that have little to do with assessments of Phnom Penh's ability to fight its own battles.
In 1984, Porter says, Vietnam decided there is only one world economy -- that the socialist nations do not really have a separate, self-contained economy. To participate fully in that world economy, Vietnamese leaders realized, they would have to end their military presence in Cambodia.
The United States and its Asian allies have cut off or severely limited economic ties with Vietnam because of its occupation of Cambodia.
While Hanoi takes credit for freeing Cambodia's people from the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge, it got involved in Cambodia primarily for Vietnamese reasons -- just as it is now getting out primarily for Vietnamese reasons.
Hanoi decided to topple the Khmer Rouge government, Vietnamese officials acknowledge, primarily because of continuing Cambodian attacks on its own villages along the Vietnamese-Cambodian border.
The severity of those attacks was highlighted earlier this year when Lt. Gen. Le Kha Phieu, the former deputy commander in chief of Vietnamese forces in Cambodia, told a press conference that 55,000 Vietnamese troops had died in the Cambodian conflict since 1977.
More than half that total -- 30,000 soldiers -- died in border battles before the December 1978 Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.
Border security remains an important consideration for the Vietnamese, and this leads some to ask whether Vietnam is leaving Cambodia for good.
Roland Eng, press spokesman for Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the Cambodian resistance leader, does not believe the government in Phnom Penh is ready to stand on its own.
The Vietnamese are building up arms caches on the Vietnamese side of the Cambodian border, he says, and they have organized a rapid-deployment force which they can send back into Cambodia within 48 hours.
"If there is no political solution and the Khmer Rouge come back, there will be a civil war -- a huge civil war," Eng says. The Phnom Penh government will have to ask for help, he says, "and they are not going to ask the Soviet Union. They will ask Vietnam to come back."
Vietnam's pledge to pull out of Cambodia does contain a loophole, allowing for consultations between Hanoi and Phnom Penh if the Cambodian government's security is threatened. But for now, at least, Vietnamese leaders are stressing their intention to let their Cambodian allies fend for themselves.
Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister Nguyen Co Thach, who is also the country's foreign minister, compares the government in Phnom Penh to a child learning to walk.
"Sometimes it may fall down," he says, "but you must let it try to stand on its own."
Western diplomats in Bangkok are giving Vietnam the benefit of the doubt.
"It may be like 1973 when the United States was pulling out of Vietnam," one source says. "You have to make a decision. Which of the hills and populations centers you fought hard for are you going to give up to the bad guys?"
Phnom Penh's commanders, they say, may be asking the Vietnamese to wait just a little longer before pulling out of sensitive locations.
Although they do not accept Hanoi's numbers -- they say only about 38,000 Vietnamese troops have left Cambodia, rather than the 50,000 claimed by Vietnam -- these diplomats say the movement is in the right direction.
Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida
Published Jan. 9, 1989
Photographs copyright © 1989 John Spragens, Jr.
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