S IEM REAP - Co-Defence Minister Tea Chamrith says the government's policy of encouraging Khmer Rouge defections is working, and the rebels are weakening.
Chamrith said that more than 1,000 rebels have crossed into the Royal army camp since the beginning of November, across many provinces.
"The Khmer Rouge are beginning to believe that they really won't be killed or imprisoned if they defect," he said in an interview with the Post.
"We will train them, educate them. Before they could not see the blue sky, now they can," he said.
More than 100 Khmer Rouge guerrillas from Phnom Kulen in Siem Riep province surrendered as the mountain fell to government troops in early December.
Proclaiming themselves sick of war and poverty and eager to contribute to national reconciliation, they took the total number of recent KR defections in the area to several hundred.
In an important victory, Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) troops won Phnom Kulen (Kulen Mountain), which had been under KR control since 1985.
Army commander Major General Uy Sopheap said the victory came after several weeks of fighting in which the KR had concentrated on launching hit-and-run attacks against government forces around the mountain's foothills.
The biggest number of defectors, 87, tramped to Run village, 23km northeast of Siem Riep town, to turn themselves over to authorities on December 9.
Their oldest member, 55-year-old Meas Chhun, said he defected because life in the jungle was hard and he had lost the will to continue fighting.
" I come here right now to see my people, my nation and my country."
He said he did not want to prolong the war between the government and the KR because it was causing starvation among Khmers.
"We have plenty of rice fields but how can the people do their farming if we are still fighting each other?"
There should be no argument between Khmer and Khmer, he said, and they should unite to defend their country from foreigners.
A KR veteran since the Sihanouk regime, he said he decided to defect when he heard the King's appeal for reconciliation on radio.
He said he wanted to join the Funcinpec party, which he believed was the best to lead the nation, and to join the government's army.
"I will be a soldier all my life unless my head falls off my neck," he said.
The commander of KR division 980, Huort Him, who led his soldiers to surrender, said he had wanted to defect for a long time but was afraid of being killed by the government.
"My boss told me the government would not let me live if I gave myself to them," Him, who had been in the KR for 22 of his 39 years, said.
He said he had heard a radio appeal by Prince Norodom Ranariddh for KR guerrillas to lay down their weapons.
"After listening to the radio I just realized that I had made a lot of mistakes and I was confident and brave to confess to the government," said Him.
"I have no argument at all with my colleagues but I came here because I think there is no more use staying in the forest to fight each other - I want to have reconciliation."
He said that, of the 515 soldiers in his division, more than one hundred had recently defected, including the 87 on December 9.
Among the weapons surrendered by the 87 defectors were 37 AK47s, one M16, 10 CKC rifles and 13 rocket or grenade launchers.
The defectors also brought with them their families, who had been living in a KR-controlled village near the foot of the mountain.
Tit Kem, 22, the wife of a guerrilla, said her husband had served the KR since he was a little boy.
She said life in the village had been terrible, with little food or medicine.
As the group of guerrillas and their families trekked to Run village from the mountain, they were often congratulated by locals happy to see them defect.
They were housed in a pagoda, while the army prepared to take them to Siem Riep town.
General Uy Sopheap said the defectors would be given accommodation, food and one month's education in the provincial capital. The latest defections followed those of 117 rebels in November, he said.