Khmer Rouge play on old fears in Cambodia: The guerrillas have left the jungle for the city, but they still have the same enemies, writes Terry McCarthy

A man opens a metal slide in the gate, and without speaking indicates that the visitor should put his name on a piece of paper. The slide closes. Five minutes later the man reappears with a written message setting an appointment for the next day. Welcome to the Khmer Rouge.

The Khmer Rouge have always been secretive. From 1975-79 Pol Pot closed the entire country to outsiders. When the Khmer Rouge were hounded out in 1979 by the invading Vietnamese, they began a clandestine guerrilla war from the Thai border, supported by China and Thailand. Because of the horrors of their 3 1/ 2 -year rule, they became even more inaccessible to reporters.

But now, under the Paris peace agreement, they have returned to Phnom Penh. They occupy a compound at the back of Prince Sihanouk's palace, where in former days the royal elephants were stabled. The compound is spacious, with several buildings for offices and living quarters. 'We are trying to make it look better,' said Kor Bun Heng, the senior political cadre who was waiting inside the gate. 'We have planted flowers and trees. Later we might grow vegetables as well.'

The 20 Khmer Rouge officials in the compound have something of a siege mentality. When they first arrived in Phnom Penh last November, their leader, Khieu Samphan, was attacked by a mob. The Phnom Penh government claimed it was a spontaneous demonstration, but witnesses to the incident say there was a core group of provocateurs, presumably organised by the Vietnamese- backed regime.

Kor Bun Heng, who was in the room at the time, was more forthright. 'At least half of them were Vietnamese,' he said. The Vietnamese are the favourite bogeymen of the Khmer Rouge - even during their rule they blamed economic and political difficulties on Vietnamese infiltrators.

Today the Khmer Rouge are again hitting out at Vietnam, claiming that nearly one million Vietnamese troops remain in disguise in the country, and that therefore the United Nations-supervised elections should not go ahead. Few outsiders believe this claim, but the racist message falls on fertile ground inside Cambodia, where Vietnam has long been regarded as a mortal enemy of the people.

It is true that the Vietnamese population in Cambodia has shot up since the peace agreement. But most are craftsmen, restaurateurs, traders and prostitutes from the south of Vietnam, attracted by the new-found prosperity in Phnom Penh. Few would have any allegiance to the Communist regime dominated by north Vietnamese in Hanoi. But many Cambodians resent these newcomers because they are more industrious and make more money. The Khmer Rouge are subtly harnessing this resentment into their own political agenda.

The strength of the Khmer Rouge is their ability to speak to the irrational, subconscious side of ordinary Cambodians. Most of their top cadres are highly intelligent and well educated, and far more disciplined than the leaders of the other factions. 'We are mainly a group of intellectuals, working to save the Cambodian race from the Vietnamese,' said Kor Bun Heng. The danger of the Khmer Rouge is that their message can unleash the same passions that are now destroying the former Yugoslavia.

The other main objection raised against the UN by the Khmer Rouge is more substantive: that the UN officials in Cambodia are too partial to the Phnom Penh government. Many ordinary Cambodians agree with this, and criticise the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (Untac) for allowing Phnom Penh government officials to amass fortunes from corrupt deals in property and trading. 'We could understand them selling private villas, but schools, government buildings, town halls? The Cambodian people know about this,' said Kor Bun Heng.

His party - officially called the Democratic Kampuchea party - is demanding more authority be given to the Supreme National Council (SNC) which has members from all the Cambodian factions and was established under the Paris peace agreement.

The UN in New York is currently debating more rigorous control over the excesses of the Phnom Penh government, while at the same time giving the Khmer Rouge a deadline for participation in the electoral process. The elections are due to be held next May, and the Khmer Rouge are expected to argue their case up to the last minute. 'We are determined on this. We will not give up our position on the SNC and the Vietnamese,' said Kor Bun Heng.

He would not say whether the Khmer Rouge would start fighting again if their demands are not met and the elections go ahead without them. But he implied as much: 'If they exclude us, they are playing a dangerous game.'

Walking back to the gate through the compound, Kor Bun Heng was relaxed and affable. After 13 years of armed struggle in the malarial jungles of the Thai- Cambodian border, was he not happier now living in Phnom Penh? 'Yes and no,' he answered with a smile. 'You will not catch me out that easily.'