AVING negotiated a seat for himself among the sacks of RCAF uniforms and emergency
supplies, General Keo Pong is talking on a radio phone - his voice muffled by the
deafening noise of the helicopter's engine.
At the other end of the line, a Khmer Rouge commander is imparting last-minute directions
to a small clearing carved out of the densely forested area somewhere below.
He briefly pokes his head into the cockpit to shout a new set of coordinates to the
As the helicopter banks sharply to the right, Keo Pong notices a sack in the cargo
that is attracting curious stares from a western military attaché. The outlines
of several spherical objects resembling hand-grenades bulge from the coarse material.
Still listening intently to the phone, he scribbles something on a piece of paper
and hands it over. Deftly written on the note is the English word "oranges."
He smiles and leans back into the cockpit.
At 46, the former Khmer Rouge commander and promising English student has become
a key player in the highly-charged political game of defections that have taken place
in the northwest since October 4th.
Eight months after his own defection, hailed at the time by Phnom Penh as a major
victory in the fight against the guerrilla movement, General Keo Pong is conducting
an intense "hearts and minds" campaign among his erstwhile comrades, trying
to persuade more war-weary Khmer Rouge to turn to the government.
In the last two weeks, five Khmer Rouge division commanders from Battambang and Banteay
Meanchey provinces have agreed to merge with RCAF unconditionally, bringing with
them hundreds of Khmer Rouge soldiers and their families.
The move, analysts agree, will further weaken the strength of Khmer Rouge hardliners
and increase pressure on Ieng Sary's dissidents towards finding a swift resolution
to the thorny issue of integration.
Now, two more division commanders from Pursat province have given in.
Keo Pong, who until now has been negotiating with them by radio, is personally delivering
a cargo of badly-needed food and medicine to his former comrades.
Shuttling between government military bases in the northwest and remote Khmer Rouge's
jungle outposts, Keo Pong has engaged in what some military observers believe to
be the government's - or specifically the Cambodian People's Party - rush to solidify
its negotiating position against Ieng Sary's demands.
In this game, Keo Pong is Hun Sen's ace for the CPP. When Ieng Sary's lieutenants
Y Chhien and Sok Pheap asked Funcinpec general Nhek Bun Chhay to talk to Pong, Bun
Chhay said they had to go through CPP general Pol Saroun to do so.
As RCAF intelligence officials have revealed, Sary's dissident faction is in fact
actively involved in a recruiting drive among villagers in the northeast to strengthen
their own negotiating power with Phnom Penh.
Motioning past the open side door of the helicopter, Keo Pong points out a plume
of white smoke half a mile ahead. That is the signal he has been looking for.
A group of defectors squats behind tree-trunks that were recently felled to create
a landing pad for the helicopter. Before the dust settles completely, Keo Pong jumps
out and shakes hands with the group's leaders.
The scene evokes images of a happy family reunion rather than one of defeat and surrender.
Rice for the villagers, uniforms for the defectors and the "oranges" are
quickly unloaded from the helicopter, while the pilot leaves the propellers in motion,
ready for take-off.
Off to the side, two KR wearing Mao-caps, kramas and flip-flops look excitedly at
the new army-boots provided by RCAF; but they shy away from trying them on in front
Earlier in the day, the same helicopter had already delivered uniforms to RCAF's
Kravahn Leach base, in preparation for the official induction ceremony planned for
A large government flag swung by a Khmer Rouge soldier greets the arrival of the
RCAF helicopter. Everyone seems delighted, except the pilot who yells frantically
from the cockpit window for the flagpole to be lowered, lest it got caught in the
Directed as the previous ones by radio and smoke signals, the last stop takes Keo
Pong to a secret area - he refuses to disclose the exact location to journalists
- to pick up a group of senior Khmer Rouge officials to take back to Battambang for
face-to-face negotiations with high level officials, and perhaps a taste of "life-on-the-other-side"
to talk about back home in the jungle.
At a Oct 13 defection ceremony at Leach, Keo Pong joined co-Defense Minister Tea
Banh (CPP) in officially welcoming eight KR Divisions, which he had been instrumental
in negotiating with, into the RCAF.
The defectors - from Divisions 695, 35, 19, 277, 26, 36, 91 and 305 - were said to
total 2,468 soldiers, but no more than about 130 of them were at the ceremony.
Halfway through the ceremony, the KR were sent off to change into RCAF uniforms before
returning to hear Banh's speech. In scenes of chaos, the guerrillas fumbled to put
on their new uniforms, some ducking behind buildings to try to avoid the glare of
photographers' cameras and the stares of curious villagers.
Many of the new uniforms appeared too big for the defectors, many of whom had to
roll up their sleeves and tie belts around their trousers to keep them up.
Tucking their old KR uniforms into backpacks, some settled for a mixture of uniforms
- such as a guerrilla who ripped off the badge on his RCAF hat and pinned it on to
his Mao cap.