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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - From a battlefield to a field of dreams

From a battlefield to a field of dreams

T wo years after defecting to the Royal Government, Chhouk Rin and the Khmer Rouge

of Phnom Vour are forging a new life - and village - for themselves. Jason Barber

and Ker Munthit report.

CHAMCAR BEI, Kep - Chhouk Rin sits under the shade of a mango tree a few kilometers

from the base of Phnom Vour (Vine Mountain), lights a cigarette and surveys the landscape.

"It was just pure jungle all around here. It was very dangerous. There used

to be a lot of mines under these mango trees. You could not come and sit here.

"Over there," he motions, "there were small tracks to a village. If

you deviated from the tracks, you would step on mines.

"The government troops were based on top of that hill," he says, pointing

to a small peak a few kilometers away, "and along the railway line.

"The guerrilla army was based on this side of the railway. This whole zone was

heavily-mined and booby-trapped with bamboo stakes."

"My life is totally different from the one I had in the jungle then," says

Rin, who spent 24 years with the KR, 16 of them around Phnom Vour.

Today, the former KR regimental commander - who led the train ambush which kidnapped

three foreigners, later murdered, near here in 1994 - talks of turning the mountain

into a tourism site.

"When we have roads - especially roads - I want to see a lot of national and

international guests coming to visit Phnom Vour. I want to see Phnom Vour become

a tourism site.

"Often, when I am free of my duties, I make a sketch on paper: where the roads

should be, where a hillside villa could be built, where houses can be built to rent

to visitors."

Rin is serious - he has submitted some sketches to the Kep governor - and seems oblivious

to the irony. Near where he sits today is the site of a jungle shack where the three

foreigners spent their first night of captivity before being bustled up the mountain.

Would that be mentioned in any tour guide's spiel?

But the times have truly changed at this one-time battlefield tucked beneath the

sprawling hill range that is Phnom Vour, a former KR stronghold with a history steeped

in blood.

Thousands have lost their lives or limbs on Phnom Vour and its surrounds: Vietnamese

and Cambodian soldiers who fought vainly to take the mountain for years; the KR guerrillas

who defended it; the civilians on both sides caught in the middle; and the hostages,

Khmer and foreign, who never came down from the mountain.

Today, peace reigns. Rin and his fighters have swapped their guns for hoes, clearing

a patch of jungle to live and farm on.

A few meters from where Rin sits is a new four-room school. There is also a medical

clinic. Small wooden houses stretch along a new dirt road. The area is held up as

a model for the integration of the KR. Other people, hungry for new land, want to

move here.

Villagers have developed a taste for donated United States Army rations. On this

particular day, Rin - decked out in Royal army fatigues - is awaiting a foreign delegation

to discuss another aid project.

From the wasteland of war, the Chamcar Bei (Farm 3) Development Center has been born.

Nestled on the south side of Phnom Vour, about 30km from Kampot town along what passes

for a road, Chamcar Bei encompasses three villages. The middle one, carved out of

jungle, is home to Rin and most of his former guerrillas.

Lest there be any doubt about their loyalties now, in front of nearly every house

there is a wooden gateway bearing three crudely-carved peaks - the peaks of Angkor

Wat, as featured on the Cambodian flag.

"That was my idea," says Rin. "We have to have this symbol here. It's

a sign that tells us that after having joined the national society, we pay respect

to a unified national flag.

"It's also a symbol that tells all factions that they have to respect the national

motto: Nation, Religion, King."

He pauses and then, just to make sure, adds with obvious pride: "You saw the

national flag in front of the school?"

Rin - who began his years of service to another flag, that of Democratic Kampuchea

(the KR), as a teenager - was perhaps destined to know this area as well as anyone.

"I was born over there, near those coconut trees," he points to a spot

a kilometer or two away.

Now aged 41, Rin joined the KR in 1970, and was based in Phnom Vour since the Vietnamese

invasion overthrew the Pol Pot regime in 1979. He reckons he lost about 1,700 men

- and half his left foot, to a landmine - on these hills.

In October 1994 - the mountain encircled by government troops after the kidnapping

of Mark Slater, David Wilson and Jean-Michel Braquet three months earlier - Rin decided

to quit. Coming down from the mountain with hundreds of followers, he helped to deliver

what 16 years had failed to do: the capture of Phnom Vour.

But the hostages were dead. Rin decried any knowledge, blaming his superior, KR General

Nuon Paet, and Pol Pot himself.

Controversially - and in a forerunner of the debate that now rages about the likes

of Ieng Sary - Rin and his fighters were welcomed into the Royal Cambodian Armed


Two years on, Rin has done well for himself. Deputy military commander of Kep, he

has traded the bombed out villa he was initially given in Kep town for a new blue-and-white

house, the largest in Chamcar Bei. He lives with his four daughters, aged 2 to 12,

and adopted son Ra. After his wife died, he remarried this year, to 25-year-old Yem


Puffing on a series of 555 cigarettes - a habit he did not have when he defected

- Rin appears more relaxed than he did then. He shows off the lemon trees in his

garden and proudly talks of his attempts to grow durians in the foothills. He seems

like a man at peace.

To some - those who may consider Rin as nothing but a train robber, a kidnapper and

worse - this may seem perverse.

But what is clear is that, just as he led his followers into war, so has he led them

to peace, and now to development. He has been instrumental in securing the help of

NGOs, getting his people into training schemes, and dreaming of a bright future for

Chamcar Bei.

"I'm not sure he would fight for anyone any more," says one NGO worker.

"But I think he'd fight for Chamcar Bei."

As for himself, Rin seems weary of talking of the past. The surest way to draw a

smile is to ask him about the future.

"It is my hope that the harder we strike, one day we achieve our objective,"

he says, with the military language of a soldier, about the development of Chamcar

Bei. "We have made some improvements, but we have not yet satisfactorily achieved

that objective."

When a total of 316 families came here in December 1994 - choosing the site of a

former village many years ago, before the war - there was nothing.

"The first day we settled down, people set up tents under the shade of trees,"

says Rin.

Land was cleared and de-mined, each family getting a 30m by 100m plot. A road was

built through the new village, sponsored by Hun Sen and several NGOs, a water reservoir

built, and 14 wells dug by NGOs.

The government gave the school and medical clinic and, after more than a year's wait,

95 wooden houses. The US government donated hospital beds and MRE (Meals-Ready-to-Eat)


With the exception of there not being enough houses for 316, the village otherwise

looks good - certainly better than some in rural Cambodia - and the prospect of new

land has people queuing to move here from other areas.

Chum Nuong, the village's chief administrator and a former KR, says as many as 600

requests for land have been made. He worries that there won't be enough MREs to go

around if so many people come.

Rin has agreed to some land applications from police and government officials, for

the sake of "solidarity", but is undecided about the rest.

"It may be a problem if I reject their proposals," he notes, anxious to

avoid any claims of discrimination. "I don't want the unity of the people jeopardized

by people saying 'You are red, you are blue and I am white'."

Rin and Nuong dispute that all is rosy and rich at Chamcar Bei; it is, they say,

just the lure of new land which has made other peole want to settle here.

"Most people still face a hard life here," says Nuong. "Most people

go into the forest to cut firewood and sell it to support themselves.

"Some still borrow rice from others to support themselves until the harvest

comes, then they have to pay it back."

Each family is supposed to get 5-10 kilograms of rice a month from the government

to supplement their own crops, "but some months there is no rice".

Rin lists his people's needs: more teachers, medicine and hospital equipment, better

irrigation and water storage and - given that the 95 houses are not enough for the

316 families - accommodation.

"But I have much hope for the future, because we see the benefit and importance

of working hard for development. And both the government and NGOs have paid a lot

of consideration to us - this is a moral support for us."

Despite that, Rin knows well that to some - foreigners at least - he will always

be known as the man who took the hostages.

"A lot of journalists have asked me about the three foreigners. I told them

they should ask Nuon Paet, who knows all the reasons [for their deaths].

"The majority [of people here] do not want to be reminded of what happened in

the past. If you talk about the past, there were two sides involved in it.

"Hundreds of my men left their bones on the mountain here. If I made a rough

estimate, it would be 1,700 men killed by malaria and war. It is a bitter story for

us and our opponents must have experienced the same bitterness that we have.

"That is why most people do not want to see the past repeated. They themselves

do not want to remember it either."

Since defecting, Rin has done his bit to hasten the demise of the KR - most recently

negotiating the defections of perhaps the last remaining guerrillas in the province.

Professing "excitement" at the rebel breakaway in northwest Cambodia, he

believes the KR will "fade away" next year.

Does he fear the breakaway has brought its own political dangers?

"I believe that some political parties have been trying to benefit from the

[breakaway] Khmer Rouge forces," he replies. "But I believe strongly that

most Khmer Rouge commanders are exhausted of fighting, as I am.

"And I believe that the RCAF are tired of fighting, so I don't believe there

will be any major confrontation between political parties. This is the path that

no-one wants to choose again."

And for himself? Does he see any political future? "I am a member of the national

army," he replies. " I will not take in anything that would push the nation

back to suffering."

Rin would rather talk, and work, on development than war. After more than two decades

of war, this is a man now known to wander through Chamcar Bei reciting Martin Luther

King's famous "I have a dream" line.

Ask him about his dreams, and he relaxes. He has submitted a proposal for a marketplace

at Chamcar Bei, has hopes of a proper highway being built, wants to promote agriculture

investment and tourism here, and more.

"I want to visit America", he smiles, "to understand America, to see

the progress in America, so I can tell my farmers here to do the same.

"It's just an idea," he says, almost apologetic. "But it is also part

of my dream. My life has many dreams now."



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