The food was French and skillfully prepared. Glasses of beer and cola were poured. In a tree-shrouded border camp on Monday night, journalists sat down to a banquet designed to portray the leaders of Cambodia's ousted Khmer Rouge government as open-minded and well-mannered gentlemen who had been falsely accused of brutality.
Premier Khieu Samphan paused over his plate to ask for a television correspondent's views on regional relations. Across the circular table, Defense Minister Son Sen personally dished out servings of mixed vegetables. Finance Minister Thiounn Thioum, a one-time Phnom Penh businessman, reminisced in English about representing American companies in the old days.
Nineteen months after abandoning the capital to a Vietnamese invasion force, Khmer Rouge leaders admit to "mistakes" during their time in power. Now fighting to hold a mountainous enclave along the border with Thailand, they say they have replaced Pol Pot and rejected socialism, and if restored to control would allow full democracy and free trade.
If true, it would rank among the most remarkable political transformations in modern history. The Khmer Rouge government reportedly killed 3 million people between 1975 and 1979 in purges. Tens of thousands of Cambodians fled to Thailand. The new faces and policies of the Khmer Rouge appear to be more of an effort to win support in the war against the Vietnamese than a genuine change in political philosophy. Pol Pot and his circle of hardened revolutionaries, who oversaw social regimentation and mass executions during their four years in power, remain in control.
In a guerrilla war, the Army and Communist Party remain the key institutions. Pol Pot is now military commander and apparently still chairman of the Communist Party.His henchman and ally in years of purges, Ta Mok, commander of the southwest military region, seems to have retained his post as well.
In an interview this week, Khieu Samphan said the mistakes after 1975 were mainly in policy implementation. Zealous cadre did not give commune workers the required one day off in 10, he said, and the evacuation of Phnom Penh could have been better organized.
Basic policies, however, were correct, Khieu Samphan said. Seated at a roughly hewn wooden table, he declared: "Evacuation was the only way to resolve conditions in Phnom Penh. Three million people were there. Only when they came to the countryside could they find food."
Asked about the executions, Khieu Samphan denied that his government had killed anyone. "To talk about systematic murder is odious," he said. "If we had really killed at that rate we would have no one to fight the Vietnamese."
Vietnamese agents, some of whom infiltrated senior positions, were to blame for the "less than 10,000 executions" that took place, he said. Once the agents were rooted out and put in detention centers the killings stopped, according to the premier.
The old policies were correct for post-1975 Cambodia, but are not suited to a country faced with Vietnamese occupation, the Khmer Rouge say. Thus their government last year unveiled a new political program of utopian freedoms and a united front, known formally as the Patriotic and Democratic Front of Great National Union of Kampuchea. Cambodia is also called Kampuchea.
Its program provides for freedom to form political parties, elect representatives, publish journals and organize public gatherings. Collective economy is rejected. Cambodians would be allowed to engage in private commerce, cultivate their own plots of land and trade with foreign countries.
The front's program creates other freedoms relevant only in light of the harsh rule after 1975: freedom to "make journeys or stay at home" (the Khmer Rouge emptied the cities at gunpoint), freedom to "establish relations with the help of letters" (there was no postal system) and freedom to "make commercial exchanges by means of a national currency" (there was no money).
The Khmer Rouge also reshuffled their Cabinet, bringing in new personalities and political perspectives. Pol Pot stepped down as premier. He was replaced as head of state by Khieu Samphan, who after 1975 had managed to maintain a distance from Pol Pot, at least publicly.
Technocrats were brought into ministerial-level positions, too, notably three brothers from the Thiounn family. Foreign-educated, and fluent in French and English, two of the brothers gave long interviews at the border camp this week.
Thiounn Thioum, 56, said he suffered extreme hardships performing physical labor in the fields and going without books and newspapers. Nevertheless, he maintains that living conditions improve each year. "If you're fair-minded, you have to say that the positive prevailed over the negative," he said.
Specialists have noted that in 1978 there was a slight liberalization in economic and social policy. Foreign tourists visited the Angkor ruins and large numbers of technicians -- such as Thiounn Thioum -- returned to their old jobs in Phnom Penh.
Pol Pot's influence within the party and the Army, in contrast, accelerated at this time amid growing fear of Vietnam. Hanoi attacked in December 1978.
The Khmer Rouge point to the promotion of educated and amicable men such as Thiounn Thioum as proof that the government has gone far beyond 1978 in its liberalization program, but there is overhwelming evidence that Pol Pot and his associates continue to make all major decisions.
Many Indochina-watchers reject Khieu Samphan's label of "moderate." Although as head of state he avoided direct complicity in post-1975 policies, he did remain in government, and was apparently appointed to his new post with Pol Pot's approval.
The two central figures of the former prime minister's cabinet -- Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and Defense Minister Son Sen -- retain their posts. The newcomers hold positions that are largely ceremonial, given the government's current status in the jungle. A finance minister has little influence without banks, currency, national development programs or foreign trade.
To date, few Cambodians and no major political organization have joined the united front. Former head of state Prince Norodom Sihanouk publicly scorned offers to take part. The Khmer People's Liberation Front, the best organized of the various right-wing Khmer Serei (Free Khmer) guerrilla groups, has also declined to join.
But Khieu Samphan has not given up trying to sell his case. He has brought a steady stream of Western journalists and Cambodian emigres to the camp this year.
The deposed government faces an uphill struggle, however. For the time being, most Cambodians appear to fear the Khmer Rouge returning more than the Vietnamese staying on.
To be sure, the speed with which Vietnamese forces swept through the country must have led the Khmer Rouge to reexamine policies of those years. But a turnabout to democracy seems psychologically and politically impossible. Given the choice, Cambodians almost certainly would vote the Khmer Rouge into obscurity.