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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Dine, dance and full pardons to all

Dine, dance and full pardons to all

THE soldiers, their starched uniforms hiding the towels wrapped round their

knees, were all set to go down on bended knee for the Royal

government.

The brass band stood at one side, battered instruments at

attention, and the pop band at the other. The crab, shrimp and beer were tucked

out of sight.

The enlistment ceremony for the Royal Cambodian Armed

Force's latest recruits was ready to begin.

The 306 soldiers - from a

total of 425 but there weren't enough trucks to take them all to the ceremony -

stood ill at ease, eyes glancing around, taking it all in.

They had been

promised a party, but first they had to go through the serious stuff.

Assembled in rows in their new RCAF uniforms under a cloudless sky in seaside

Kep, it must have seemed a lifetime away from their former home of Phnom Vour.

In a few minutes, after their transition from Khmer Rouge guerrillas to

government soldiers would be complete, it would be even more so.

It was

obvious these were experienced fighters. At their head stood three former Khmer

Rouge officers, one minus his right arm. Many of those lined up behind bore

scars on their arms or faces; one man had only a hollow where an eye should have

been.

Ranging from the old to the young, every face gave a glimpse of

their feelings. The wary, darting eyes and furrowed brows of some stood side by

side with the jovial smiles and jokes of others.

All stood to attention

- one who didn't received a sharp jab in the back - as the invited dignitaries

arrived to the trumpeting of the brass band. The ceremony began.

The

soldiers, on command, dropped onto their right knees to be formally sworn into

the army.

Repeating a Royal army commander's shouted pledge of allegiance, some

wholeheartedly bellowed the words while others barely moved their

lips.

Rising to their feet, many reached down to adjust the towels they

had earlier wrapped round one knee to cushion them while kneeling.

The

governor of Kep, Chea Rithichhut, and senior RCAF chiefs stepped forward to pin

army insignia to their bare uniforms.

First to receive them was former

Khmer Rouge commander Chhouk Rin - who had led most of the guerrillas behind him

to defect from Phnom Vour - and two other former rebel officers.

Lieutenant colonels' epaulets were pinned on all three. Hands were

shaken, smiles were exchanged and $10 cash was later handed to each of

them.

Then it was the turn of the lesser ranks to receive badges, with

one, two or three stripes.

The head of a local monastery moved through

the ranks, sprinkling water with a lotus leaf from a silver bowl to bless them.

That completed, newly-appointed Lt Col Rin - undoubtedly the star of the

occassion - stepped forward to speak.

Reading from typewritten notes, he

wholeheartedly endorsed the King, the Royal government and local military

personnel who were "completely different from the propoganda and fraud of the

obstinate Khmer Rouge leaders".

He expressed the former guerrillas'

"profound thanks" for the First and Second Prime Ministers' granting of amnesty

to them.

Urging other KR to defect as well, he pledged that "returning

to live with the national community, as we did, will bring glorious future

happiness and safety".

To stay in the jungle, he said, was to "live

miserably with no freedom, awaiting only death."

The message delivered,

the ceremony was complete. The fun could begin.

Tables and chairs were

unstacked. Bottle after bottle of beer and plate after plate of food - cooked

crabs, shrimps and rice - were attacked with gusto.

After the food came

the dancing. A live band in one corner burst into life and dozens of defectors

took to the concrete dance floor.

RCAF commanders and former guerrillas,

just months ago bitter enemies, strolled around swapping drinks and jokes.

The defectors - from a KR base whose name is synomous with the killing

of foreign hostages - pronounced themselves "very happy" to the few foreigners

present, insisting on shaking hands and posing for photographs.

They

appeared just ordinary people. For an hour or two, any thoughts of their pasts -

or their futures - were put aside.

Tomorrow the war would continue, with

them having changed sides, but for tonight at least they would go to sleep

contented.

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