A Khmer Rouge security officer responsible for butchering hundreds of Cambodians during the Pol Pot dictatorship undergoes one to three months of "reeducation," is handed a supply of food, seed and tools and then is freed to return to his home village.

But an officer in the armed forces of the former Nguyen Van Thieu government in South Vietnam, imprisoned in a "reeducation camp" in 1975 without trial, remains there today, eight years later.

These are not exceptions but the rule in Indochina. The system of "reeducation" conceived by the Vietnamese punishes wartime enemies not for the crimes they committed but for improper political attitudes.

To this day, the Vietnamese praise "reeducation" as more humane than Nuremberg-style war crimes trials. Rather than charge their countrymen with crimes that carry the death penalty, the Vietnamese say, they hold them in camps--without trial--until their jailers certify them as properly "reeducated" into the communist system.

In recent interviews, Ouk Boun Chheoun, minister of justice for the People's Republic of Kampuchea, as Cambodia is now formally called, and Phan Hien, minister of justice for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, both described how "reeducation" favors communists over noncommunists.

A former officer of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge need only accept a different interpretation of Marxist Leninism; a noncommunist officer who did little more than follow orders in battle is imprisoned indefinitely because he rejects communism.

The contrast of "reeducation" with more traditional concepts of justice is particularly stark here in Cambodia, where there is no dispute about the murderous nature of the Pol Pot regime.

"After Kampuchea was liberated in January 1979 we determined there were two kinds of enemies," said Chheoun: "those who betrayed the revolution and those who are counterrevolutionaries."

Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge fall into the first category--enemies who betrayed the Cambodian revolution. Chheoun said any former Khmer Rouge who accepts the new regime is sent to "reeducation" for one to three months and then released with "full rights of ordinary people." This policy, outlined in a 1979 amnesty program, remains in force. If a Khmer Rouge fighting with Pol Pot on the border defects, he would be given the same generous treatment.

"The only exceptions are Pol Pot and Ieng Sary. We sentenced them to death," Chheoun said.

Those two top leaders in the Pol Pot government were tried in absentia here in August 1979. They were tried specifically for the crimes committed by the regime, as were a few security men who worked for Pol Pot. But since that trial no other Khmer Rouge figure, whether a commanding officer or a minor bureaucrat, has been tried or charged.

"The only conditions we place on them is that they return to their native village and they cease any illegal activities," said the minister.

The division of wartime enemies into political rather than criminal categories is the core of Vietnamese-style "reeducation." Noncommunists who fought against Pol Pot while he was in power get harsher treatment. Even though these "counterrevolutionaries" are innocent of the Pol Pot massacres the Heng Samrin regime denounces daily, they are the most likely to be imprisoned indefinitely in "reeducation," according to Chheoun.

"They are sentenced to prison, long sentences up to 20 years," said Chheoun. "These are sentences for those with strong contrary opinion. We have only serika the generic name for noncommunist opposition and nationalists jailed for 20 years."

Chhum Bun Rong, a spokesman in the Foreign Ministry, volunteered what has become the standard wisdom in explaining why the former Khmer Rouge are treated with such clemency. "We can't go around killing more Cambodians," he said. "We have to end Khmers killing Khmers. That is a just policy, a humane policy."

This Vietnamese-style "reeducation" system dovetails with the difficult political course chosen by the Vietnamese-installed regime in Phnom Penh. A more traditional system for dealing with war criminals would require a countrywide de-Nazification program or a de-Stalinization of the party and police apparatus. Either would touch not only a broad swath of the country's population--roughly 50,000 former Khmer Rouge are free in Kampuchea today--but the top leadership itself.

Head of State Heng Samrin, Foreign Minister Hun Sen and Chheoun, to name but a few, were all Khmer Rouge fighters who held significant positions in the Pol Pot government. Hun Sen fled from Pol Pot in 1977, Heng Samrin and Chheoun in 1978.

By leniency for those who "betrayed the revolution," the new government absolved its own leaders and most other Khmer Rouge of all of their crimes and asked only that they admit to the political mistake of taking the wrong path to revolution.

"We don't want to hold them too long if they receive the light of the new People's Republic of Kampuchea," Chheoun said.

The obvious political thrust is to shore up this new Cambodian communist regime that is subservient to the Vietnamese communist system, to fortify it with more communists and not consider the question of crimes. It spills over to other matters involved in postwar national reconciliation.

While a communist Khmer Rouge can defect tomorrow and be welcomed back into the country, a Cambodian refugee innocent of any crime who fled to a western nation following Pol Pot's overthrow--a doctor, nurse or engineer who could help in reconstruction--is forbidden to return to his homeland

Last September Hun Sen announced a new program promising amnesty to all defectors of any political category if they accepted the regime's constitution. In an interview, however, he said the amnesty applied only to those men now fighting on the Thai border against the Vietnamese and Heng Samrin armies.

"This does not apply to Kampucheans living abroad," he said. It is an amnesty program directed solely at dismantling the resistance armies fighting the Vietnamese occupation.

This policy of clemency toward the Khmer Rouge also flies in the face of the regime's constant barrage of propaganda reminding Cambodians how they suffered under Pol Pot.

Few official gatherings are complete without a speaker who details how he or she saw children, parents and friends murdered by Pol Pot's henchmen, and other atrocities. It is not unusual for some of the people who carried out such orders to be seated in the audience or even on the podium with the victim recounting the story.