BATTAMBANG - A week of political violence in the northwest saw occupying troops take
up positions in Battambang, allegations of summary executions, the take-over of the
town's central police station and the cutting of Route Five.
Phnom Penh leaders eventually moved decisively to subdue the tensions - suspending
the four top provincial officials - but police and military here say it will be hard
to forget the deaths and bitter divisions which shook Battambang.
What sparked the unprecedented violence between Funcinpec and Cambodian People's
Party (CPP) loyalists is itself hotly disputed.
Differing versions of the trigger point include feuding over Khmer Rouge defector
allegiances, irregular troop and weapon movements, or disputes over land and logging
Numbers killed or injured in the on-off fighting are unknown but Funcinpec officials
claim 10 of their forces were killed, while CPP officials say only that they had
lost "many" troops.
Aid agencies and military sources estimated at least 21 had been killed or injured
and said ambulances were being dispatched from Sisophon in the north during the confrontations.
In perhaps the most extraordinary event, more than 500 so-called "Blue Khmer"
- former KPNLF soldiers loyal to Funcinpec, identifying themselves with blue bandannas
- moved 100km south from neighboring Banteay Meanchey province to take up positions
in northern Battambang.
Funcinpec officials say hostilities erupted when their troops intercepted soldiers
loyal to the CPP as they traveled into the former Khmer Rouge district of Samlot,
south of Pailin.
Funcinpec deputy governor Serey Kosal - one of the four local leaders since suspended
by Phnom Penh - claimed his troops stopped around 200 CPP soldiers moving into Samlot,
near Phnom Thippedey in Battambang's southern Moung district, Feb 9.
"It was an unauthorised troop movement of around seven trucks, and weapons moving
into Samlot...we told them that if they went in to Samlot they would not be permitted
to return," Kosal said.
But CPP military claimed the troops and trucks were being used to move logs and to
construct a road into Samlot, "to help the Samlot people".
CPP military commander of the northwest's Region Five, General Hul Savoan - also
since suspended - said Funcinpec troops tried to stop CPP troops on a logging truck
traveling into Samlot.
"Serey Kosal confiscated the log truck and disarmed the RCAF and Samlot troops,"
Subsequent fighting at Phnom Thippedey and nearby Koh Kralor village sent civilians
scrambling for safety, prompted the "Blue Khmer" forces to move into Battambang
province, and severed Cambodia's major highway, Route Five, in three places.
Provincial sources said CPP officials closed Route Five north of Battambang Feb 14
after the "Blue Khmer" troops from Nimith and Thmar Pouk, moving into support
Funcinpec troops, clashed with CPP militia.
"I have worked on Route Five for ten years, at times it has become dangerous
because of the Khmer Rouge, but this is the first time the road has been closed by
the government," said the military police chief at the Andong Cheng check point
on the northern edge of Battambang.
Tensions in Battambang town reached a peak the same day when 20-30 Funcinpec police
took over the central police station, firing into the police yard and confiscating
weapons. There were few CPP police in the compound, so a major confrontation was
avoided, witnesses said.
"At first it was only police leaders who were divided but after this incident
police down to the lower ranks separated along political lines," said Battambang
policeman Im Chu.
In the town, the deputy governor Kosal's house resembled a military headquarters,
guarded by an armoured personnel carrier, machine guns and close to 60 Funcinpec
and former Samlot Khmer Rouge troops.
A double amputee, who sat guarding the entrance with three hand grenades strapped
to his waist, said he had two more grenades under the cushion of his wheelchair in
case of a suprise attack on the residence.
As Phnom Penh defence chiefs flew in and out of the province for emergency meetings,
and agreements were made for all troops to withdraw to their bases, the feuding parties
continued to hold their positions.
Second deputy governor Nam Tum (CPP) said that CPP tanks moving up Route Five towards
pro-royalist troops Sunday night were "just to defend the town". General
Savoan said he had not ordered troops to attack Funcinpec but that "local militia
had taken their own action".
Funcinpec officials alleged a series of summary executions of stray bands of Funcinpec
soldiers were carried out by CPP military during the crisis.
Sun Po, a 25-year-old Funcinpec soldier from Sdao, on Route 10 toward Pailin, said
he survived a mass execution carried out by the CPP commander from Rattanak Mondol
district, who he identified.
Po, who had bullet wounds in the wrist, neck and side, said he and four other Funcinpec
soldiers were returning on motos to their base in Sdao, at 10am on Feb 12, when they
were seized by the commander and his offsiders.
"We were taken 6 kilometers into the forest off Route 10 and were shot... I
pretended I was dead but the other four were killed," said Po who said he had
reported the incident to a local human rights organisation.
Funcinpec officials Kosal and Battambang police chief Vorn Chhun Ly claimed that
over a three day period, 10 Funcinpec troops were "picked off" in shootings
along Routes Five and 10.
"Major Keo Panharith was shot and killed on the road on his way to Phnom Thippedey
- he was not killed in battle," Serey Kosal said.
"The Phnom Penh delegations must show charity to my soldiers because if they
were killed in fighting, in war, it is normal but these were executions. We want
the culpits arrested."
Military observers say the CPP-Funcinpec rivalry over Samlot was the flashpoint for
the week of violence.
They say existing tensions erupted initially when a Dec 23 visit of the First Prime
Minister to Samlot was cancelled because pro-CPP commanders, upset when pro-Funcinpec
Pailin troops arrived, refused to provide security for his arrival.
Khmer Rouge defectors from Samlot, based at Kosal's house during the confrontations,
claimed they had been forced out of Samlot by pro-CPP commanders who were "forcing
villagers in Samlot to join the CPP".
"The Samlot leaders were providing up to 10,000 baht [$400] from logging profits
to families who supported the CPP. About 80 percent of families received the money,"
said Tri Kim Hong a 32-year-old soldier who lived in Samlot for 13 years.
"On Jan 2 Keo Pong ordered the shooting of leaders who opposed Samlot leaders...I
don't know why that problem arose," he said.
Kim Hong, whose wife and three children are still in Samlot said around 200 Khmer
Rouge defectors from Samlot fled into the forest and Battamabng after the unrest,
and that he is now unable to go home.
"Unless the government resolves the problem in Samlot it will be too dangerous
to return," said Kim Hong.
CPP, meanwhile, accused the Samlot rebels of being aligned with Anlong Veng hardliners
still loyal to Pol Pot who wanted to retake the area.