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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.