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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Last days for guerrilla currency

Last days for guerrilla currency

T

en Sophal's antiques stall at Phnom Penh's Russian Market doesn't display his

1993 Khmer Rouge (KR) currency: it is simply too rare and too valuable to be left

out with the other denominations from Cambodia's history.

"By the end of next year there'll be no notes left," he says.

The 1993 notes represent the KR's second attempt at creating a currency. In January

1975, before it came to power, the KR printed a wide range of denominations, but

vacillated on whether to put them into circulation.

Within a day of seizing Phnom Penh in April 1975, the KR declared that money was

to be abolished.The notes that had sustained the economy until that point were suddenly

worthless, and gleeful KR soldiers literally tossed the old currency in the air.

However the dream of a society without money was short-lived. Within three weeks

the new currency began circulating in parts of Cambodia. The notes were printed with

images from the revolution as its architects had dreamed it would be. Scenes depicted

included Angkor Wat, the symbol of the Khmer nation, earnest looking peasants working

together, harvesting side by side with soldiers, and young revolutionary women hoisting

rocket launchers on their shoulders.

Shortly after it had been issued the new money was withdrawn and, while the decision

on releasing it changed several more times, the view that eventually prevailed was

that the new agrarian paradise was to be a cashless society.

Most of the bills never left the safety of the National Bank of Cambodia until Pol

Pot's troops deserted Phnom Penh, blew up the bank and showered the streets with

mint condition bills. The first visitors to the Cambodian capital in 1979 were treated

to the bizarre spectacle of streets empty of people but flooded with cash and the

gutters literally flowing with money. Starving children used the notes to start fires.

The invading Vietnamese troops pocketed large wads of the cash that had been left

in the national bank and took it home at the end of their tour of duty. Sophal says

he used to make regular trips to Vietnam to buy old banknotes but complains that

these days they are hard to find.

Now, while Cambodia's markets are awash with the 1975 notes, there are hardly any

left in Vietnam. According to Sophal they were never worth much anyway. "A complete

set costs between $10 and $12 depending on the condition," he says.

The 1993 currency is a different story. In the early and mid- 1990s the KR banned

the use of the official Cambodian riel in their stronghold areas of Pailin and Anlong

Veng and once more embarked on an attempt at developing a currency of their own.

They produced 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 riel notes in a local Anlong Veng printing press.

The ideological imagery of the 1975 currency was replaced by tourist brochure style

images of Cambodia printed cheaply and slightly off-center on small bills, many carrying

the exactly the same serial number.

The notes carry the obligatory pictures of Angkor Wat as well as images of houses

on the Tonle Sap and a Khmer New Year festival being held in the Pailin forest. They

also bear the hallmarks of an official currency with the signature of Khieu Samphan

in the bottom left hand corner. For their short period of circulation the bills were

simply referred to as "Khieu Samphan currency".

The lack of a government or central bank did not deter the KR from its attempt to

raise their fortunes through the use of the currency. It simply tied the value of

the currency to the value of the Thai baht at a rate of one riel per baht. At a time

when the official riel was in free fall against the US dollar the value of the KR's

own cash was fixed.

In March 1993 the issuing of the guerrilla currency was thought to be a factor in

an 80 per-cent plummet in the value of the official riel. The new riel added to the

uncertainty of the official Cambodian currency and the KR was rumored to be buying

up Cambodian notes then dumping huge numbers of them in Phnom Penh markets to exacerbate

the currency crisis.

Yet it was not only the official currency that was vulnerable. By August the Khmer

Rouge had ordered that the five month old currency be burned to prevent it from falling

into the hands of Cambodian government troops. In an eerie echo of 1979 when government

troops did arrive in Pailin in early 1994 and found the town littered with the strange

bills, the currency had already gone out of circulation.

Sophal says that it was only after the 1996 defection of KR troops that the experimental

currency found its way to Phnom Penh's markets.

Former soldiers sought him out to sell their old notes, which had become worthless.

He in turn discovered that there was a tidy profit in selling the souvenir bills

to the foreigners who frequented his market stall.

But now the supply in Cambodia has almost dried up and competition from the internet

has driven their value well below their premium of only a few years ago.

"Because the people from Germany and New Zealand buy the notes and sell them

on the internet they are not worth so much. Now for every buyer there are three sellers,"

he laments.

 

"There are no sellers left in Cambodia. There won't be any more notes at

all after next year."

While Sophal still has about 30 five and ten riel notes he has no intention of

selling his last full set of the colorful bills - not, that is, unless he gets the

right offer. "I'd sell the whole set for $700," he says.

That is above their current catalog price of around $325, according to New Zealand

artifact and currency dealer Geoffrey Oldham.

When Oldham arrived with a catering company during the UNTAC period the notes were

a rare find and he began collecting them.

"It's a pity they went so high. A few years ago [a full set] went for over $1,000,"

he says, adding that it used to be easy to buy notes in markets in Laos and Thailand.

"It got spread around. There's a lot around in Thailand, the US, and for sale

on the internet," he says.

Oldham agrees that the notes are hard to find in Cambodia, but holds out the prospect

that a big cache of notes may yet turn up.

"I think they became an embarrassment and they were told to destroy them, but

I also think that a lot got stashed away," he says.

Sophal, who still stocks Cambodian notes from the period of French Indochina to the

present day, is slowly running out of the old currency. He says that his days of

selling the guerrilla notes, Cambodia's most unusual currency, are almost over.

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