"We do not want to become Red. But someday we will have to accept it, because we will be unable to avoid it... We only want to maintain forever the Khmer nation and the Khmer flag ."

Norodom Sihanouk, February 1964.

CAMBODIAN Prince Norodom Sihanouk anticipated and prepared for the Cambodian Communist movement; ultimately he became the narrator of the saga of the Red Khmers.

In the beginning they were bother-some political opponents, "a few teachers in my schools." Later they were an army of 500 soldiers less troubling to Sihanouk than the Americans and Vietnamese Communists who were winning concessions from the prince while he tried to keep Cambodia out of the Indochina War.

At the end, which came this month with the Vietnamese-led invasion and overthrow of the Khmer Rouge government, the prince was released from imprisonment to plead the Cambodian Communists' desperate case at the United Nations.

All along Sihanouk saw the Communists -- and the other political movements in his small nation -- only as future leaders who would someday be responsible for insuring the integrity of the Khmer nation. He even christened the Khmer Rouge. "The rightists, they are Khmer Blue," he said in the 1960s. "The blue team against the red team. I am a Khmer White, I have no team."

Instead, Sihanouk had the loyalty of most of the country's peasantry who to this day revere him as a "god-king," the descendant of Cambodia's centuries-old monarchy which was at once royal and divine. Through his heritage he is also caretaker of a country historically threatened by neighbors larger and stronger. The political ideology of the moment has always meant less to Sihanouk than his fear that either Thailand or Vietnam would come to dominate Cambodia and fulfill the prediction of histroians that his was a dying nation.

For 38 years he has played politics with that shadow across his shoulder; a chess game against the devil. He literally finessed independence from the French, without resort to guns, to rid Cambodia of the colonialism which was breeding revolution and upheaval in Southeast Asia. He bet, then, that an independent Cambodia would survive if it made alliances with all of the warring nations and factions in the region. The strategy worked until the war in Vietnam splintered him and his country.

The 1970 coup d'etat put an end to Sihanouk's neutrality and he chose the red team, believing that the communists were the more nationalistic and bound to win over the rightist generals who overthrew him. His side did win, with the prince lending his name and reputation to the communists during the five-year war.

Quickly, however, the Red Khmers became the captors of Sihanouk and for the past three years he was imprisoned in Phnom Penh, inside the royal palace, with his family and radio reports of the revolution outside the palace gates. He was let out only when the survival of the Khmer nation became doubtgul.

Although he condemned the Vietnamese after their troops conquered Phnom Penh and most of Cambodia this month, Sihanouk still wanted to negotiate with them. "We have to get the Vietnamese to withdraw or we will become like Laos," he said last week. "I do not think a guerrilla resistance can work this time."

WHILE SIHANOUK was locked inside the Phnom Penh palace, the Khmer Rouge were creating the government and revolution of "Democratic Kampuchea." The Khmer Rouge tarned the life of Cambodia upside down and punished those in opposition, according to many of the refugees who fled the country. These reports led to the widely held opinion that hundreds of thousands of Cambodians died because of summary executions, starvation or disease during the four-year rule. All cities were emptied and all 5 or 6 million Cambodians forced to become peasants in new villages called "cooperatives." The reasoning behind this massive and harsh reorganization was to work the country into a state of self-sufficiency, if not exhaustion.

Beyond this economic goal, spoken of by the communist leaders as if it were sacrosant, was the underlying notion that Cambodia's security and defense would be enhanced with the people displaced and less likely to become victim to Vietnamese plotters.

The threat of the Vietnamese was used to explain some of the most radical aspects of this unprecedented social experiment. The cooperatives, in fact, were said to have grown out of the war-years problem of Vietnamese Communists "buying too much rice from our people."

"We organized our people into cooperatives in 1973," an official said in Phnom Penh last month. "First, it helped our people organize their hours of agricultural production. If there was bombing in the day, they all worked at night and vice versa. But the Vietnamese were the biggest problem. They would buy the rice.So we abolished money. Yes. If the people did not need money, if they lived in a cooperative where everything was provided for them by the state, they would not sell rice to the Vietnamese. After that there was always enough rice for our people and our army."

The answers always came as if memorized from a school primer -- the lessons of experience learned by living with Vietnam. It was on the basis of their experience, as they chose to see it, that the Khmer Rouge ran Democratic Kampuchea, always preparing for the day when they would have to face the Vietnamese army.

By the time the Vietnamese invasion began, the country was one of the most isolated in the world. Only China could be called an ally; it supplied Cambodia with arms, ammunition and fuel but not with the sophisticated weapon fleet of warplanes that Vietnam possessed from the American arsenal left in the south and from Russian aid. The Cambodians were no match militarily or diplomatically for the Vietnamese.

THE KHMER ROUGE kept the names of all but a few top officials as "military secrets." "This is one of our means of opposing the Vietnamese. We have not yet publicly said what are changes in our government. Thanks to our experience, we think there is efficiency to doing it like this," said Ieng Sary, foreign minister of Democratic Kampuchea. "We won't give the names of the Vietnamese agents for the same reason."

Another official later said this would protect the government should it be forced into exile, to wage a guerrilla war against Vietnamese occupiers.

This fear led to the abolition of military barracks as well. Soldiers wore the same clothing as peasants and political officials and they lived in the cooperatives, three to 10 soldiers for every 50 families. They were almost all single men -- a sign of their youth, since men were encouraged to marry at the age of 20 -- and women were said to make up at least one-tenth of the fighting forces.

Although the army was organized as a regular army -- with divisions, regiments, battalions and companies -- it resembled a guerrilla force. Helmets, boots and flak jackets were not worn by the troops. The entire military strategy was to attack the flanks of the Vietnamese until they retreated. Direct confrontation was not considered.

Besides hiding soldiers, the cooperatives supposedly hid caches of food and arms in preparation for the day the government and army would be forced underground.

The chain of command was not regular, either. Each division was run by a committee composed of a chief and two deputies. Only one of the committee members knew the names of their military superiors. Orders were relayed through "Angka," the nameless officials in Phnom Penh. Companies stationed in the same province were kept unaware of each other's movements; their only authority was Angka.

These elaborate precautions left the people ignorant of their own government. Everyone lived in isolated unison. Their sacrifices were tremendous: trauma, illness and sometimes death while their leaders extracted year-round labor from them. The intelligence reports, as scanty as they are, say that the Cambodian people did not offer resistance to the Vietnamese and their Cambodian rebel allies when they marched through the country in the two-week blitzakrieg.

The Khmer Rouge leaders must have been caught by surprise as well. Two days after the offensive began, they launched a dry run of the scheduled tourist flights from Bangkok to Angkor. Their business partner in Bangkok reportedly had some 50,000 tourists signed up for the package deal to begin on Jan. 1.

THE SPECTER of Laos was always raised whenever the Cambodians were asked if their obsession with the Vietnamese threat was leading toward a self-fulfilling prophecy. "There are 4,000 Vietnamese troops stationed in Laos," explained foreign ministry official Thiounn Prasith. "Laos is like a colony of Vietnam. They have sent thousands of Vietnamese to Laos to settle there and marry the Laotians. They say these Vietnamese are helping to rebuild the country. They are exterminating the Laotian race."

Interracial marriages were forbidden in Democratic Kampuchea for this reason. French wives were included in the ban and there are many families of Khmer Rouge officials living in exile in Europe.

The fear of Vietnamese domination stems, in part, from the French colonial practice of placing Vietnamese bureaucrats in Cambodia and Laos to help administer these countries. Vietnamese migration increased with this policy and before the 1970 war Vietnamese was the third language of Phnom Penh.

There are some 50 million Vietnamese, no more than 7 million Cambodians. It is a statistic cited often.

Under the Khmer Rouge, all cities and provinces in South Vietnam were called by their former Cambodian names -- a propaganda device to remind the people that the Vietnamese had defeated the Cham nation, ethnically Cambodian, in the 15th century and "swallowed up our Kampuchea Krom."

Ho Chi Minh City, only recently changed from Saigon, was called Prey Nokor -- the Cambodian name. The Khmer Rouge went so far as to claim that Vietnam was first united only after 1975. This revision of history especially included the Cambodian attempt to deny the dominant role Vietnam played in establishing the Communist parties of Indochina which defeated the American-sponsored governments in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia by 1975.

The Indochina Communist Party, established and nurtured by the Vietnamese in the 1930s, carried the main load in the drive to rid the French of their colonial power. Sihanouk's success at winning independence for Cambodia in 1953 hinged on his argument that, without independence, Cambodia would become communist like Vietnam and no longer an ally of France.

Yet the Khmer Rouge were adamant in denying any role to the Vietnamese and set out a history of their years as comrades in arms with the Vietnamese to make themselves appear the dominant force.

"The services and aid granted to the Vietnamese by the Communist Party of Kampuchea and the Kampuchea's people were incommensurable," the government wrote in "Black Paper -- Facts & Evidences of the Acts of Aggression and Annexation of Vietnam against Kampuchea."

"At the moment when they were condemend to the annihilation [by South Vietnam and the United States], we have saved them. However, the Communist Party of Kampuchea has never talked about that. On the contrary, the Vietrnamese have spent their time hiding out the truth and deceiving the world public opinion, the Vietnamese people and army by making them believe that they have given considerable aids to Kampuchea. The role played by Kampuchea's revolution was priceless... [in 1970] the Vietnamese had no territory [in South Vietnam] and took refuge in Kampuchea. They installed there their organs of leadership and command, their troop quarters, their hospitals, etc."

The Khmer Rouge omitted the training they received from the Vietnamese, the hundreds of Khmer Rouge who received refuge in Hanoi during the 1950s and '60s and the base Hanoi provided the Khmer Rouge during the war in the '70s. In fact they bridled at any reminder that the Vietnamese, by fighting in Cambodia diring 1970 and 1971, actually secured staging bases for their own revolution.

THE KHMER ROUGE began to believe their own version of history. Just two weeks before the invasion they made the following claims while standing at the border where the Vietnamese tnaks and artillery pushed through:

"Vietnamese forces are weaker than the Lon Nol forces [whom they defeated in 1975], especially in their use of heavy artillery."

"We defeated the Americans -- do you think the Soviets are stronger than the Americans?"

"The Vietnamese soldiers are no match for ours. They are starving and they are deserting.The Vietnamese must depend on machines, on planes and tanks. Infantry always win wars."

The contradiction between that show of confidence and the constant discussion over Radio Phnom Penh and by officials that the Vietnamese were "threatening to swallow up Kampuchea" was never explained.

When Vietnamese Ambassador Ha Van Lau spoke at the United Nations he said there were two wars involved in the Cambodian dispute: the Vietnamese-Cambodian border conflict and the "liberation" of Cambodia by the front formed in early December.

Throughout the short history of Democratic Kampuchea, Cambodia and Vietnam disagreed over their common border. Vietnam wanted changes in the border and Cambodia, it appears, reacted with antagonism on the border. Full-scale war broke out at the end of 1977, when Cambodia severed all relations with Vietnam, and the Vietnamese were the losers of the border conflict.

But more was at stake. Simce Vietnam led the resistance against the French it had fostered the idea of an Indochina federation, an idea repugnant to the Khmer Rouge, who viewed it as a thinly disgused attempt to colonize Cambodia. The first full-scale war between two communist nations erupted from these conflicting appreciations of power in Southeast Asia and the tug of history.

The Khmer Rouge, who made history by imposing the most radical and crude "revolution" on Cambodia, have promised to "fight to the death." Yet the Cambodians set in place by the Vietnamese victory are Khmer Rouge themselves, who defected last year.

The Cambodian front already has founded a government and promised to reinstate the Cambodian institutions abolished by Democratic Kampuchea: Buddhist religion, public education for all children, cities, privacy, freedom of movement. At least momentarily, there seems little chance for the Khmer Rouge to dislodge the frnt and the Vietnamese army protecting it.

Sihanouk, arguing at the United Nations to force the Vietnamese to withdraw, witnessed what might well be the final chapter of the Khmer Rouge's Democratic Kampuchea. He did not defend their government -- he called it the worst violator of human rights in the world -- and privately he expressed no wonderment that events came to pass as they did.

"They lived in illusion," the Prince said in New York. "I am a Buddhist, not a communist. The Vietnamese are Vietnamese. Unless they withdraw, they will be there forever."