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AN UNTIDY END TO THE KHMER ROUGE

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The last chapter of the monstrous Khmer Rouge story in Cambodia should have ended, World War II-like, with the evil force crushed and its leaders festooning a gallows. Reality has penned a somewhat less tidy ending for the Marxists who killed up to 2 million of their own countrymen during the 1970s. But, with luck, an ending all the same.

Reports from Cambodia say that as many as 4,000 Khmer Rouge, representing perhaps half of the shadowy group's total strength, are switching to the government's side. The reports - including radio broadcasts from diehard Khmer Rouge reviling the defectors - signal that the communists' long menacing of Cambodians could be about over.Things could yet go awry. Since the 1993 elections brought a modicum of stability to ravaged Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge main force has holed up in the hills near the Thai border, unable to take the military initiative. But Khmer Rouge sympathizers infest Cambodia. Will the defectors join the democratic process or link up with fifth columns to wage guerrilla war?

There is also the justice question. Some surrendering Khmer Rouge leaders should answer for crimes against humanity.

But for now, Cambodians hope they are hearing a happy paradox: in the footsteps of soldiers coming down from the mountains, the receding hoofbeats of a nightmare.