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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The Kulen shuffle: defectors choose sides

The Kulen shuffle: defectors choose sides

Under the spectacular backdrop of sacred Kulen mountain, former Khmer Rouge are taking

sides - with one group threatening to attack near the Angkor temples - in guerrilla

skirmishes which mirror Cambodia's wider military and political divisions. Tom Fawthrop

reports.

KANTHUOT - Nestled deep in the forest more than 80km from Siem Reap town, Funcinpec

and Khmer Rouge resistance forces in this remote village claim to be planning attacks

closer to the Angkor temples.

"Tourists should take care about visiting the temples... they should stop visiting

Angkor Wat, because we will attack government soldiers wherever we find them and

tourists might get hurt," said Funcinpec colonel Ith Som, who defected from

the KR in 1994 but has now rejoined his former comrades in the guerrilla army's Div

980.

While planning to launch attacks in outlying Siem Reap districts near the temples,

Ith Som - who claims to be under the command of Funcinpec resistance chief Nhek Bun

Chhay - said: "We don't target tourists. None of my soldiers have killed tourists."

Despite sporadic attacks in the north of Siem Reap province, particularly in Varin

and Angkor Chum districts, all the temples - including Banteay Srei, 38km north of

Angkor - have remained safe.

In a recent interview at his jungle base at Kanthuot, north of Kulen mountain, Ith

Som claimed he intended to attack the Banteay Srei, Svay Loeu and Chi Kreng districts.

For now, though, his main battlefield is around the historic Kulen mountain, which

boasts a giant Buddha, spectacular waterfall and the legendary River of a Thousand

Lingas.

Ith Som's forces - he claims 564 men under his command, with the support of a further

500 guerrillas under the control of the KR hardliners in Anlong Veng - occupy part

of the mountain range.

But most of the mountain, including its sacred summit - which the government, after

recapturing the area from the KR in 1995, had intended to turn into another tourism

site - remains under government control.

Defending the mountain area are solders from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF)

3rd Jungle Warfare Unit under the command of a fellow former Khmer Rouge, Colonel

Hourt Him.

Both Hourt Him and Ith Som were among the 'class of '94' defectors - among the few

senior guerrillas who broke away to join the government before the Ieng Sary-led

breakaway fractured the movement - and know each other well.

A fellow former KR colonel who defected from Siem Reap in 1994 is Thai Bun Ret, who

is now the overall commander of the RCAF 3rd Jungle Warfare Unit, with Hourt Him

his deputy. While Hourt Him is directing operations against Ith Som's men around

Phnom Kulen, Thai Bun Ret is responsible for countering attacks by KR Div 912 in

Varin district.

Col Thai Bun Ret was very angry with a Koh Santipheap newspaper article about his

alleged defection to the Funcinpec resistance at O'Smach after the July fighting

in Phnom Penh. "I want to take action against that newspaper for causing me

problems; many military officers read the story, so some of them don't trust me now."

Ith Som - the only one of the three colonels to have chosen to go back to life as

a jungle guerrilla - rejoined former KR Div 980 after July. He claimed that he did

so after CPP soldiers in Siem Reap tried to kill him.

"Ith Som was very close to Nhek Bun Chhay," clarified Hourt Him. "He

feared for his life, but I was in the middle so I stayed with the government."

Hourt, in an interview at his home in Siem Reap town, scoffed at Ith Som's threats

to attack the Angkor temples.

"I don't believe he has 500 men... he took 40 with him from Siem Reap and 30

have since returned," said Hourt Him.

"He has mostly Khmer Rouge now, and some Funcinpec from O'Smach, but his capacity

is not that much - only to plant some landmines in Kulen."

Hourt Him did, however, say that while Ith Som's forces could not capture and hold

control of the Banteay Srei temple, they might be able to mount attacks to "disrupt

the temple for one hour".

Ith Som hopes that other defectors will join the anti-government resistance - he

specifically appealed to a group of about 400 former guerrillas living in Siem Reap

to return to the battlefield - but not all are anxious to take up arms again.

"I have been badly treated by Hun Sen police after July, but I prefer to talk

with Sam Rainsy, rather than engage in more fighting," said one officer, who

asked not to be identified, from the 400 defectors.

Ith Som, meanwhile, is a typical example of the blurring of lines between the KR

and the Funcinpec resistance.

At Kanthuot village, some 30 soldiers wearing the standard KR green uniform were

seen during a recent visit. A sprinkling of other soldiers, including Ith Som, wore

RCAF or old Funcinpec uniforms.

Resting in a hammock and suffering from malaria, Ith Som said he first joined the

Khmer Rouge in 1971, then deserted the Pol Pot regime and joined the Royalists on

the border in 1979. Captured by Heng Samrin forces and jailed in 1981, he escaped

in 1983 and rejoined the Khmer Rouge.

Now, he said, he takes orders by radio from Nhek Bun Chhay at O'Smach. But when required

to attend a Funcinpec military conference at Cambodia's northern border with Thailand,

he walks to Anlong Veng and then across the border.

He confirmed that he coordinates not only with Bun Chhay but also KR general Sim

Phanna, commander of Div 980, and Ta Mok, the Anlong Veng-based commander said to

have deposed Pol Pot.

When he first defected in 1994 Ith Som claimed: "Ta Mok ordered our troops to

burn all the houses of district leaders, commune officials, because he said they

work with the Vietnamese and their puppets... I defied his order; that's why I defected.

Ta Mok is very cruel."

Three years later, the same Colonel Ith Som spoke of Ta Mok as a "good man"

who has apparently forgiven him for his earlier defection.

Now - in line with the public statements of Nhek Bun Chhay and the ousted Funcinpec

Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh - Ith Som says that there is no Khmer Rouge

any longer.

"They have all become Funcinpec. They will change their uniforms [and] the Royalists

will lead the resistance," said Ith Som, adding that Nhek Bun Chhay recently

met Ta Mok in Anlong Veng to discuss the union of their forces.

As for ammunition and land-mines, Ith Som confirmed that some of Funcinpec's supplies

were coming from Anlong Veng.

"Some ammunition and most landmines are manufactured in Anlong Veng, but some

ammunition we use has been brought in from Thailand, and some bullets have come from

old arms caches from China," he said.

These caches have been identified by defectors as being based in the triangle where

Cambodia, Laos and Thailand meet, at a point known as Tonle Lpov. The Anlong Veng

commander of Div 150, Gen Arun Ornsi, is said to have special responsibility for

this area.

During fighting late last month at Rolim, in Siem Reap's Varin district, RCAF troops

seized 20 landmines of the '69' brand made in China.

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