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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Flaws detected in the Pailin gemstone

Flaws detected in the Pailin gemstone

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Land of the Rich Red Gem

From no-man's land to capitalist haven, things may be turning sour in Pailin

PAILIN - As dawn breaks through the mountain mist,

"The Pailin Wind" by Ros Serey Sothea, a famous

female vocalist from Lon Nol times, plays over Pailin FM

radio.

"Live with worries, the sad [things] and funny

[things] are always changing...

The Pailin wind, dreams on Phnom Yart...

The moans of previous life, the capitalist of the forests

of sapphire,

Killed and destroyed the love from [my] dear,

I am so nostalgic... I used to be with [you] and have

never been away.

The wind flows blowing over the grave, love of the

poor...

But I am still honest even the world is narrow, if I was

born in a hundred more lives ,

[I] always wish to be with you."

San Vet, who has lived here since 1979, says:

"A-Pot's [contemptible Pol Pot] songs are not in my

heart. They did not have any words of 'love'. It always

says 'attack yuon, attack yuon'... Every word in the song

abuses yuon," she laughed. "If not, it would

say 'cut off the roads, destroy the bridges, fight the

enemy at the front and behind, cut the enemy into

logs...'"

Vet's history is harrowing. Like so many natives of

Kratie province, Vet's family, by quirks of fate,

geography and timing, were among the "old" or

original Khmer Rouge people. Life was a bit easier for

them, or so the history books tell us, but Vet doesn't

see it quite like that.

She lost all her family by the time she was 12. She fled

in the "long trek" to Pailin, then to Thailand

in front of invading Vietnamese in 1979. Herhusband was

killed trying to help recapture Pailin from the

Vietnamese in 1984.

But her melancholy deepens when talking about the songs.

She remembers that all songs - except bloody

revolutionary ones - were banned until Pailin defected en

masse to the government two years ago this month.

Pailin's music should have been merrier in the last

couple of years. And in the beginning it probably was.

But it seems things are not quite so tuneful now in the

Land of the Rich Red Gem.

Ee Chhean - the governor - has run Pailin since brokering

the defection of his turf and Sok Pheap's Phnom Malai

from Pol Pot and Ta Mok to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen

in August 1996, having negotiated initially with

Funcinpec general Nhek Bun Chhay.

His former soldiers praise Chhean for this. When Ta Mok

promised them nothing but continued war and Maoist

rigidity at a "re-education" meeting in Pailin

in early 1996, Chhean asked Mok to leave.

Former soldier Soeur Yin, 44, laughs that when Ta Mok

left Pailin and crossed a river "he turned his head

back and abused Ee Chhean 'A [contemptible] Chhean! A

traitor! You will see! When I arrive [at Anlong Veng] I

will bring my forces to destroy you, you will see."

Mok's forces did return, briefly, but were talked out of

attacking, Yin says.

But the split left Pailin in no-man's land: "If we

went back Ta Mok would kill us and if we went forward

we'd meet Hun Sen soldiers," Yin says.

It was Chhean who negotiated a truce with the Royal

government, cementing it eventually with Hun Sen. Yin

says Pol Pot's former lieutenant Ieng Sary "worked

hard" explaining to the people and the soldiers the

reason for joining the government.

Chhean and Pheap pushed before them Sary as a figurehead

- thesubordinate player in the "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary

clique" that was vilified throughout the world for

its part in the 1975-79 regime. In what is still

incredible to many people today, Sary was pardoned for

his sins in the name of political expediency.

Pailin was another stick of dynamite in the bomb that

would eventually blow the elected CPP-Funcinpec alliance

apart in July, 1997, but the town seemed barely affected

by this.

Instead, it geared up for an unprecedented change as a

semi-autonomous free market, free from both the

governance of others and fear of attack.

The simple folk came in droves, thinking Pailin would be

some kind of El Dorado. Gems littered the streets. There

was no crime here - one could leave one's motorbike

unlocked and unattended and it would still be there in

the morning. There was no prostitution and no gambling,

apparently. The politics, intrigue and graft of

Battambang and Phnom Penh seemed light- years away; so

did the fighting of O'Smach, Samlot, Anlong Veng and

Preah Vihear.

But things are turning a bit sour as Pailin celebrates

its second birthday as a capitalist haven.

One gem prospector, from Kampong Thom, was embarrassed

about his poverty. He'd earned 900 baht ($22) in just one

year. Before working his new claim he used to scavenge

and steal pay-dirt from commercial Thai prospectors and

was chased away many times by local police, but never

caught.

"Oh when will I have good luck like Chao Chet [a

famous Khmer of the 60's who struck it lucky in Pailin]?

I have taken one thousand sacks [of dirt] already and I

still have bad luck," he says.

Yin, the former soldier, says: "I spent almost my

whole life fighting against the [Lon Nol and Hun Sen]

government for the nation and people. But now the KR

soldiers in Pailin have no means [of income].

"I am wondering," Yin says, "[the KR

leadership] praised and respected us in the time of war.

[But] now when [Pailin and Phnom Penh] are together they

forget us." Whatever money Yin gets he spends on

food for his family or foranti-malaria medicine -

whichever need is greater.

"I feel sorry. I struggled for the life of the

nation but at last my life is meaningless. That is the

life of the [unskilled] soldier," he says.

Yin has three children. He is a gem prospector too, and

like all his comrades he carries the scars of wounds from

his enemies - American, Khmer and Vietnamese.

"Now I am not a soldier any more," Yin says.

" Before I carried a gun and struggled for the life

of the nation, but now I put down the gun and hold the

axe and struggle for the future of my children."

There are about 15 brothels in this small city and a new

casino. Heavily made-up taxi-girls - including

prostitutes from Vietnam, which was for a long time the

hated foe - sit in front of shops, waving at car

passengers and even local pedestrians for a

"massage". The city, except the most popular

brothels and karaoke bars, is under a permanent midnight

curfew.

"I'm not a conservative," says one old KR

soldier who has been here since 1979. "But there is

too much freedom [here now]."

Some other former KR soldiers say their lives in Pailin

are much better than the lives of their counterparts in

the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), because former

KR soldiers have been provided with titles to land.

"Compared with Hun Sen soldiers, we are better off.

We have big pieces of land and we live in a rich area,

now that war is finished," said Chhay Kie, a former

KR soldier.

Crime in and around Pailin is still well controlled.

Route 10 through the jungle from Battambang is open 24

hours a day. "This road is the safest in our

country," says a taxi-driver.

Last month, a driver reported to military police that

four bandits were on the road. The police searched for

and found the men, executed two of them while the other

two escaped. There have been no more security problems on

Route 10.

The people talk openly about what jewels they find and

what money they may make. Gems are freely traded on the

streets. There is no thought of being circumspect for

fear of robbery.

However, some are still worried for the future. The

"free market freedoms" may bring with them

thieves and disorder in the town, various people told the

Post.

But it's the "anarchic" commercial prospectors,

especially, that are "very, very bad. They destroy

all [of the resources and environment]," said a

former soldier. "People are just thinking about the

short term benefits, the money, but they don't think

about the long-term credibility."

By "people" he means the Pailin administration.

And Pailin is administered by Ee Chhean.

For every person who consents a good opinion of the man

who led them away from the hated Pol Pot and Ta Mok and

showed so much bravery and skill in bringing Pailin to

peace, another now doubts his ability to properly govern

the homeland.

Chhean was said to be one of Pol Pot's personal

bodyguards. He is not formally educated but still has the

slavish following of many. Vet, who used to cook for him,

says "Ee Chhean is good and kind. Now he is ban

thoeu thom" - a high ranking official.

But others say that Chhean has sold off lucrative road

contracts to Thai companies and at least one from Korea.

The road builders have criss- crossed Pailin with

massively wide boulevards, but they remain unpaved.

In exchange for this haphazard city planning, the

companies pocket pay- dirt said to be rich in rubies and

sapphires. Hence, the wider the roads, the more dirt they

get. But perhaps the dirt isn't quite as rich as the

companies thought it might be.

Those who know say that Sary - who has little executive

responsibility - has nevertheless been moved to

"advise" Chhean about his style of governance.

Several times, sources say, Sary has had Chhean over to

his home forrespectful, personal chats about taking

"the right path" for Pailin. It didn't seem to

work. The last time, sources say, Chhean ignored the

invitation.

Chhean has been cheated in business deals, one source

added. Cheated comprehensively and easily.

The old Khmer Rouge fighters slip readily into

revolutionary vernacular these days, saying that

"girl chasers" and "drunkards" cannot

lead Pailin in a good way.

Others are more complimentary. They say that perhaps

Chhean should have some advisers. He has learned a lot

about city governance - perhaps "state"

governance would be closer the truth - but that he often

takes decisions on his own.

The policies of the new government in Phnom Penh are

plainly not appreciated and Pailin did the unthinkable on

July 26: its voters rejected a formal order from Ieng

Sary to vote CPP and elected a Sam Rainsy Party (SRP)

candidate instead.

"Because of this anarchy [involving prostitution,

gambling and gem deals], that's why the SRP came from far

away, spent a moment of time here and got all of these

people's support," said one official.

SRP Secretary General Yim Sokha says there are many

reasons for the party's victory in Pailin.

"The most important thing was because the local

authority correctly fulfilled the policies of

democracy," Sokha says. "And thanks to Mr Ee

Chhean who perfectly fulfilled his duty in an independent

way."

Pailin believed Rainsy was a good, nationalistic leader,

and that SRP candidate Hut Try - a former guerrilla - had

personally taken care of and loved the people, he says.

Try - who couldn't be contacted in Pailin for an

interview - sold a piece of his local land for $3 a

square meter to a Khmer buyer, instead of $5 that he

could have got from a Thai businessman, to pay for his

election campaign, Sokha says.

"People thought that he is a good person even before

he was an MP. So they think if he became an MP he would

be able to continue doing good, that's why people elected

him," Sokha says.

Sokha says that the SRP will cooperate with Chhean on

constituency matters.

The internal squabbling within SRP's Phnom Penh

headquarters, where Try is being publicly undermined by

Sun Kim Hun (who was actually first on the party's Pailin

list and wants the seat himself) may not sit well with

the Pailin electorate. However, Sokha's comments make it

plain that Try, the local, will retain the blessing of

the party hierarchy.

The distrust and unease in Pailin may be darkening even

more. There is a sense that Pailin's citizens - and not a

few of its soldiers - are upset that former KR commander

Nuon Paet was lured out of Pailin and arrested six days

after the election in connection with the murder of three

Western tourists in Kampot in 1994.

"If they give someone amnesty, they should do all of

the Khmer Rouge. They should forget about the past. If

not, this may destroy national reconciliation," said

one official, on condition of anonymity. "It's time

all people have to look to the future, not the

past."

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