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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - From coup to casinos: the forgotten frontier of Oddar Meanchey

From coup to casinos: the forgotten frontier of Oddar Meanchey

THE historically disputed province of Oddar Meanchey is struggling to build a

new image with luxury casinos and brothels - but health, education, water and

land are not on the cards for most of the poor people.

A Tb patient with suspected AIDS at Samrong Hospital.

Oddar Meanchey, a

northern province along the Thai border, has made impressive strides despite

post-coup violence and the legacy of land mines that has plagued its

inhabitants. Yet the province faces a dicey future as it tries to manage

development along the border, while working to shed its war-torn reputation and

ensure that the province is not forgotten by the rest of Cambodia.

Many

Cambodians still associate Oddar Meanchey with the coup of 1997 and the ensuing

violence that consumed the province for 18 months as CPP forces sought to

eradicate the royalist enclave of O'Smach and the Khmer Rouge stronghold of

Anlong Veng. But today, the province is a relatively quiet place where - aside

from occasional robberies and deadly attacks on people driving motorbikes along

the rugged Route 68 - the greatest commotion comes from cows blocking traffic on

the dirt roads.

"Danger is always in the back of the people's minds

because Anlong Veng is there and some of the Khmer Rouge are still there," said

Son Chhay, a Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker who is familiar with the province. "There

are many mines and they don't have water. And it's very isolated, so it's like

another world to most people, like Africa."

There is still a strong

military presence in Oddar Meanchey of about 4,000 soldiers, according to

Colonel Nen Chan who heads the province's military border patrol. But both

Colonel Chan and First Deputy Governor Mao Tim bristle at the notion that

outsiders might think Oddar Meanchey is still unsafe.

A prostitute and her mama-san wait outside an O'Smach brothel, while the mama-san's daughter watches through the bars.

"There is good

security here and the chance of crime in Phnom Penh is a lot greater," Tim said.

"We have only nine to 10 thefts a month. The bigger problem here is the bad

roads."

Indeed, the roads, which are beset with crater-sized potholes and

collapsed bridges, deter most people from visiting Oddar Meanchey. Further, the

road from Samrong to Anlong Veng is still too heavily mined to travel, despite

Prime Minister Hun Sen's promise to demine it as an act of reconciliation to

link the former Khmer Rouge base to the rest of the province.

No

progress has yet been made on that deadly road, and the province still lacks

many basic government services - prompting fears that it has been ignored or

forgotten by the rest of Cambodia, say locals. For example, the province just

got its first high school this year.

As Cambodia's youngest province, it

appears that Oddar Meanchey may have to work overtime to generate awareness of

itself among Cambodians and to vie among its older siblings for the national

government's attention. Historically the area has supported and taken part in

opposition movements, and it is still a Funcinpec-dominated region, making it

unlikely that the present CPP government will take a sincere interest in

developing the province, said lawmaker Son Chhay.

"They need so much

because they only found peace a couple of years ago and they are starting from

scratch, but there is little interest by the government to help with progress of

the area," Son Chhay said. "It's important for the government to help create a

community and build schools and ensure the future of the province."

Situated just on the Cambodian side of the Thai border, the casinos attract hundreds of Thai visitors every weekend. Cambodians are not allowed in to gamble.

Oddar

Meanchey was created on April 27, 1999, having been carved from the northern

half of Siem Reap and part of Banteay Meanchey. Oddar Meanchey existed as a

province from 1962 to 1970 under the Sangkum Reastr Niyum regime, but it later

became an administrative no-man's-land, with its status alternating between a

province and a district under successive regimes.

Upon its rebirth in

1999, a governor and three deputies who had never met one another came to run

the province on a very minimal budget, said Mao Tim, first deputy governor of

Oddar Meanchey.

"We were very short of staff and we didn't have enough

budget to run the province," Tim said. He added that the province still

struggles financially to adequately serve the province with its annual budget of

99 million riels.

"At the beginning we had nothing in this province,"

Tim said. "Now it is a lot better, but we still have a lot to do to reduce the

number of poor people, improve access to government services, and clear the land

mines for the people who came back from the camps. And there isn't enough

water."

A major factor in the province's future is the Thai border crossing

at O'Smach - a rugged little town atop an escarpment that is reached by a

winding and dangerous road, and is graced by two opulent casinos.

 

The border crossing at O'Smach is currently only open Saturday, Sunday and

Monday - and only for Thais and Khmers with proper documents. But Thailand and

Cambodia reportedly have been negotiating to open it every day and make it an

international crossing point for foreign tourists.

Proponents say that

opening the border would create an efficient overland route from Thailand for

tourists to visit Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, and could spur a potentially

lucrative tourism business in Oddar Meanchey.

Vendors at the new market in O'Smach, which was built last year to replace

the old one destroyed in the 1997 fighting, argue that opening the border is

essential for business.

The casinos, Royal Hill Resort and O'Smach Resort,

are enjoying a healthy business. The casino managers are hoping that the border

will soon be open seven days a week. There are rumors of a third

casino.

O'Smach Resort, which opened in January, welcomes about 200

gamblers a day, while 500 gamblers a day visit Royal Hill Resort across the

street, which has been open since April, 2000.

The casinos serve only

Thai patrons; Cambodians are forbidden to enter unless they work

there.

In July, O'Smach Resort will open its $35-a-night hotel with 100

rooms, and plans are being drawn for an Internet cafe to entertain the many Thai

children who visit the casino with their parents, said Dennis Andreaci, senior

vice president of casino operations for O'Smach Resort. Royal Hill is planning

to quadruple the size of its hotel and build a theme park over the next few

years, said Ooi Chye Hock, general manager of casino operations.

The

casinos aren't the only business flourishing in O'Smach; the influx of gamblers

with money to burn is fueling a flourishing sex industry.

There are at

least 10 brothels in O'Smach and the number of commercial sex workers continues

to rise, according to a Thai NGO that offers the only HIV/AIDS prevention and

education services in the area.

"It keeps getting worse," said Rakkhapon

Boonchoo, program manager of DANTIB (Development of AIDS Networks Along the

Thai-Indochina Border), who has been working with prostitutes in O'Smach for two

years.

Boonchoo, who has been working in HIV/AIDS prevention along

various sections of Thailand's borders for six years, worries about the impact

of opening the border seven days a week.

"The problems are small right

now compared to other Thai borders, but they have rapid growth here and they

don't have the established government services and infrastructure for preventing

and dealing with HIV like they do in Poipet and Koh Kong," Boonchoo said. "This

place is new and unestablished, so it could get out of control."

The

casinos, which are only open during the day, have already increased the earning

potential of local sex workers. "They work all day and all night; during the day

they work for Thai men [who come to gamble] and at night they work for Khmer

men," Boonchoo said.

However most sex workers who spoke to the Post said

they earn only $1.25 to $5 a customer.

Boonchoo and his small staff

regularly visit the brothels to teach about HIV prevention and to distribute

free condoms.

"We have taught them to negotiate with men to use condoms,

but they don't have an easy life here, so many prostitutes can't turn down men

who don't want to use condoms," Boonchoo said. "They just don't have many

choices."

Sex workers aggressively hustle and latch onto men who pass by

the blighted row of brothels and small shops, which sits just down the hill from

the casinos. Most of the sex workers are Cambodian- many of whom came from other

cities to work in O'Smach - but there are a few ethnic Vietnamese.

A

22-year-old sex worker, who has been working in the industry for five years,

said she came to O'Smach after losing her job in Phnom Penh and hearing that

there was money to be made in this little border town.

"It's not as much

money as I thought, but it will get much better if they open the border every

day," she said. Her youthful teenage coworker, who attributes her presence in

O'Smach as a prostitute to the need to help pay off a family debt, agreed with

her co-worker's assessment.

A major obstacle to preventing and managing

HIV among the burgeoning sex-worker population and other O'Smach residents is

that there is nowhere for blood-testing in the entire province.

"Many

people have died of suspected AIDS, but they had no test and couldn't afford to

go all the way to Siem Reap or Thailand," Boonchoo said.

The provincial

hospital in Samrong sees at least five patients a month that it suspects of

having HIV/AIDS, but it lacks the facilities to perform blood tests, said Dr.

Plong Thom, who has worked at the hospital for five years. Thom said he has

asked the national AIDS program to help the province with managing HIV and AIDS,

but hasn't gotten any assistance.

"Since we don't have anywhere to do HIV

tests, we just estimate by their symptoms," Thom said. "Then, they die because

we don't have any medicine for them."

Aside from the touchy issue of the

growing brothel business, the casinos appear to be a sensitive topic in the

province. Both casino managers and Governor Mao Tim request that journalists

refer to them as resorts - not casinos - and emphasize that they are tools for

economic development of an impoverished province.

"We built the resorts

in order to develop the border," Tim said.

Indeed, the casino resorts

together employ more than 500 Cambodians. Further, they pay workers three to

four times what the average Cambodian earns, said O'Smach Resort's

Andreaci.

In addition to their economic impact, the casinos appear to be

making their mark on the province in other ways. They have donated money to

build new provincial offices for the governor and his staff, while they also

have committed to investing in road improvements, electricity generation and

water for villages in Oddar Meanchey.

But like many aspects of Oddar

Meanchey, the casinos have a history sullied by allegations of

land-grabbing.

In the summer of 1999, several hundred people had to leave

their homes because a casino was being planned for the land on which they lived.

Some villagers moved voluntarily and were reportedly given acceptable new

housing, but about 200 others resisted and allegedly were forced out and ended

up living on heavily-mined land in shacks with no water supply in a village

called Bram Mets.

The casinos allegedly gave the army money to demine

land for the displaced villagers, but the demining work was never done and so

the villagers have lived "temporarily" on mined land for two years.

"It's

very difficult living here because we don't have wells and there are no jobs,"

said Tek Nat, the 55-year-old village chief. "Nothing will change in O'Smach. We

will probably stay here forever."

While demining units of The HALO Trust

began operations in Bram Mets village in March and an NGO recently built a

school for the village, the government still plans to relocate the people to

safe, usable land nearby, Tim said.

Bram Mets village is only a slice of

the province's critical land issues.

There are 129,255 people living in

Oddar Meanchey, and about 25,000 of those people are Cambodians who fled as

refugees to Thailand during the fighting of 1997-1998 and returned in 1999. But

when they returned, they often found that their land was covered with mines or

that the army had seized their property.

"People want to come to live

here, but most of the land has been grabbed by soldiers," said Ouch Huy, a

43-year-old widow who lives along a lonely stretch of Route 68 with several of

her children.

As she complains about the military's abuse of power, a

large truck with several armed soldiers drives by her home slowly, stopping for

a few moments. The land adjacent to her property has already been seized by the

army, as marked by a sign bearing a name of an army officer and the acreage he

has claimed, and she said she fears losing her property.

"It's still a

problem, but not a big problem like before," said Tim of the military

land-grabbing.

Tim, a former high-ranking CPP army official credited with

ousting the Khmer Rouge from Anlong Veng, plays down villagers' fears of local

military.

"We have a lot of military here, but the military doesn't make

problems for the civilian population," he said. "People who say the military has

too much power just don't like the military."

However, some residents say

that military land-grabbing has been accelerated by the prospect of the border

at O'Smach opening full-time.

"The army keeps putting these signs up to

take the land," Huy said. "People ask for some of the land and they say 'no.'

They want to hold it and sell it for a lot of money."

But Huy, who lives

on partially de-mined land and grows a small garden, says the land issues are

relatively small concerns for her compared to her desire for basic resources,

such as clean water.

"I don't think we really need electricity, just

water would be enough," Huy said, adding that removing all the mines, such as

the one she found in her garden, would help the province greatly.

Land

mines are a major problem that still looms over the province. Like other

provinces, Oddar Meanchey is blemished with mines left by decades of war, but

Oddar Meanchey is distinguished by having the most freshly-laid mines from the

conflict in 1997-1998.

The HALO Trust has been working in Oddar Meanchey

since 1995, though they relocated temporarily during 1997, said Hang Seila, who

manages HALO's Samrong office.

According to Seila, HALO's Oddar Meanchey

team of 179 deminers has cleared about 40 mines so far this year - the third

highest number for any province in Cambodia, after Banteay Meanchey and

Battambang.

Deminers can be seen along Route 68, which is peppered with

posts and signs marking land that is mined or in various stages of de-mining.

About 34 minefields along Route 68 have been cleared already, said Sian Sytha,

HALO chief of a minefield in Kounkriel.

Seila said he is pleased with

progress, but worries that demining simply can't be done fast enough to save

everyone. At least 128 people in the province were injured by mines last

year.

"It's still sad to see so many amputees," Seila said. "Two of them

came in here yesterday and asked me to fix their wheelchairs."

Seila

estimates that HALO will have to work for five to 10 more years in Oddar

Meanchey because there are still at least 85 more minefields to clear. Seila

said that a former Khmer Rouge officer in Anlong Veng told him that the Khmer

Rouge laid 50 to 100 mines per day during the 1997-1998 fighting.

"We'll

just keep working until we get all the mines," Seila said. "Most of the people

here are refugees and some of them are still waiting for the fields to be

cleared so they can get their land back and grow rice."

Despite the

province's bitter past and challenging future, the people of Oddar Meanchey seem

determined to improve their stature and find their place in modern

Cambodia.

"Sometimes people come and see we don't have electricity and

water in many places and so they don't like it here, but I think that will

change," said Om Malmich, a 21-year-old whose family has bounced between Oddar

Meanchey and the refugee camps in Thailand since the 1970s.

"I hope the

government will remember us and take an interest in this new province. They

should look after us because we are the youngest child."

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