PAILIN - A band of former Khmer Rouge guerrillas, so disillusioned and confused by
life among Cambodia's political and military factions that they ended up fighting
everyone and anyone, has called it quits.
After eight grueling months in the jungles of the northwest, the group's leaders
decided last week that the last option was the only one they hadn't yet tried: they
re-re-re-defected to the independent former Khmer Rouge city of Pailin.
The band of 300 soldiers and 600 civilians - difficult perhaps not to label the Khmer
Konfused - are led by Ta Yon, the former chief-of-staff of Khmer Rouge Division 17
based in Samlot.
Yon's band initially defected to the Royal Government in October 1996 and enjoyed
a brief peace until last July's coup, after which they "defected back to the
forest" with Samlot's top rebel commanders Ta Muth and Iem Phan.
But according to Seng Reth, one of Yon's men now sheltering in Pailin, a split soon
developed within the Khmer Rouge defectors. One group wanted to work with the Funcinpec
resistance, another was keen on creating a farmers' paradise.
Unable to come to terms with either group, Yon and his people set off on their own.
With no ties to the government, royalist or Khmer Rouge armies, Seng Reth said this
meant they had to "fight everybody we met".
"If we met Ta Muth and Iem Phan we had to fight because we don't want to join
them in their camp under their communist line and poor farmers' party," he said.
"We had to fight RCAF because we were afraid of RCAF shelling [us] with heavy
weapons which stopped our people from following us.
"And we fought the resistance because we don't trust them anymore."
But all this fighting soon took its toll and, as the group's civilians that recently
took shelter at Pailin's hilltop pagoda in the safety of Pailin say, it was not an
Pou Sokha, 42, was one of the first to arrive at Wat Ratanak Soupan (Kong Kang) despite
being pregnant and having to look after her children and three bags containing all
her possessions. Since the group went back into the forest last August, she had neither
enough food nor medicine and often had to flee from enemy attacks.
"This is the first time that I will sleep under a concrete roof since August
1997," she said sadly.
The change from freelance fighters to defectors came after Ta Yon contacted Pailin
authorities, she said. The defection offer was accepted and ten trucks were sent
to pick them up.
There was however a hitch. They would have to travel through Thailand which would
mean surrendering their weapons to the Thais - something Sokha said was unacceptable.
"The soldiers did not want to give their weapons to Thailand and they didn't
want to have empty hands when they joined the government because weapons are expensive.
So they have to walk to Pailin through the forest. They'll take maybe two days to
arrive here," she said.
Life would have been more comfortable if the group had joined with Muth and Phan
who had set up a refugee camp and were receiving aid from the UN High Commissioner
for Refugees. But Sokha said that no one wanted to do that.
"The people don't want to join with Ta Muth or Iem Phan because they are communists,"
she said. "Muth and Phan are the poor farmers' party.
"I lived with them for a long time. I know well what they are doing so I did
not trust them when they said that this poor farmers' party was different from the
past," she said.
Reth, 38, was one of the first defecting soldiers to arrive in Pailin because his
wife had just had a baby and he was anxious to be with her.
He said he had originally been promised $150 a month for fighting with Ta Yon. But
the money never materialized and eventually food and medicine ran out.
"We lacked rice, medicine, even all the weapons to fight back," he said.
"The weapons we used we took from hidden places in Sen Chav where we left them
before integrating with the government in 1996."
Pou Sokha, who had an extensive and enthusiastic knowledge of weapons, was not impressed
with what guns they unearthed. The weapons caches were disappointing and led to the
decision to quit their haphazard fight.
"Most of the ammunition did not work, neither did the AK-47 bullets that had
been made in Anlong Veng," she said. "Only one in every five B-40 rockets
But for the moment that is all behind them.
According to Meas Sophea, deputy chief of staff at RCAF, the soldiers will be incorporated
into Military Region 5 and the civilians will be allowed to settle near Pailin in
Battambang province's Treng commune.
Meas Sophea, being perhaps a little optimistic about the government's chances in
the historically rebel territory, said the families will return to Samlot after the
government secures the area.