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.
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
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.
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.
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
"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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
Tim, a former high-ranking CPP army official credited with
ousting the Khmer Rouge from Anlong Veng, plays down villagers' fears of local
"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.
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
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
"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."
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.
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."
province's bitter past and challenging future, the people of Oddar Meanchey seem
determined to improve their stature and find their place in modern
"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."