Four months after the Khmer Rouge breakaway formally defected, the spoils of peace
are starkly mixed for the former rebels. Claudia Rizzi, who traveled the trails
between Malai, Pailin and Samlot, looks at the political and economic lines in the
former KR zones.
LAST November 6, when the Cambodian government's flag was officially raised above
the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, it was hailed as a harbinger of a new era of
peace, prosperity and national reconciliation.
Today, hundreds of government flags dot the horizon of the former "Liberated
Zone," but other - more tangible - peace dividends have not been meted out as
readily and evenly.
From Phnom Malai to Samlot, poverty and prosperity seem to run along precise political
lines which stretch from Phnom Penh, as the two coalition parties vie for influence.
In the web of shifting political alliances, KR defectors with the most to offer -
and the most reluctant to formally choose sides - are profiting the most.
Taking a careful middle line between the two government partners, the historic KR
powerhouses of Pailin and Phnom Malai have been able to retain their economic might.
Today, they are boomtowns, still controlling their own purse strings and to a large
extent financing their own prosperity. Helped by a compliant Funcinpec and CPP -
both loathe to antagonise or drive away potential allies - new schools and infrastructure
have been the fruits of peace.
The stakes are so high that some international donors are beginning to fly their
own flags on aid projects to the regions. The United States - believing that open
access is the best way to break down lingering barriers - can hardly wait to build
a road from Battambang to Pailin.
But most other donors are so far taking a more wait-and-see approach to assisting
the former KR.
Other districts of the former "Liberated Zone" - ironically those who appear
to have already taken sides in the government coalition split - are less fortunate.
Large communities languish forgotten, lacking food, medicine and clean water.
As for the promised peace and reconciliation, relative quiet has indeed returned
to the area for the first time in more then 30 years. But not for all.
Some communes live under a new threat of political violence, as the on-going power
struggle between Funcinpec and CPP spills over in the run-up to commune and general
Last month, the Battambang district of Samlot became the center of an armed rebellion
led by a group of former KR. CPP sources maintain that Funcinpec ignited the rebellion
by attempting to arm a group of disgruntled former guerrillas, in a bid to offset
CPP's strong grip on the area. Funcinpec denies the charges.
Regardless, the situation remains tense, with a small group of heavily-armed rebels
still holed-up in the jungle along the direct road linking Samlot to Pailin.
Perhaps a greater threat to stability could arise from the deteriorating economic
conditions around Samlot. The people of O'Tateak, O'Nonong, Tatok and O'Deum-check,
south-east of Samlot, are in dire straits.
Logging revenues have dwindled following the export ban issued by the central government
last December - which shut the tap on the main source of income for the 8,000 families
living in the district.
In December, say locals, the government provided a two-week window for the export
of logs. The profits were dispersed - around 10,000 Thai baht per family - but there
are grumblings that some was siphoned off. Two weeks wasn't long enough anyway, former
These are people who for years have been in the rear of the front-line, their primary
task to maintain supply lines. They are soldiers and porters who, given the forest
and the need to make money, also became lumberjacks. They are not farmers; they don't
even know how, one official claims.
Two weeks ago, a representative of the people's committee of Samlot district delivered
a plea for help addressed to all humanitarian organizations operating in Cambodia.
"Most of the people were soldiers until a few months ago. We need someone to
teach them how to cultivate the land," says a local official in Samlot.
The few existing schools have been closed since Samlot officially defected.
The school in O'Rotkros village - a somewhat more prosperous community 8km south
of Samlot - closed down after the local teacher quit and went into business, no longer
able to make a living.
While Hun Sen and the CPP are building schools in other former KR areas, Samlot -
whose defectors are led by commanders considered to be pro-CPP - seems forgotten.
The reasons are not entirely clear: perhaps it is the recent unrest there, or perhaps
Samlot - in the wider political and military scheme of things - just isn't as important
One of the few signs of improvement for the remote area is a new rough dirt road
connecting Samlot to Treng and on to Battambang.
Built by former officers from the KR Corps of Engineers, the six-kilometer stretch
was carved out of the forest in little more than two weeks, with the help of heavy
equipment reportedly brought from Thailand.
According to former Khmer Rouge in Samlot, the original road - Route 10b - was abandoned
in 1989, after the State of Cambodia withdrew its troops to Treng, following a major
"Unfortunately, the Khmer Rouge commander who was in charge of defending the
old road died before the end of hostilities, leaving more than 700 anti-tank mines
in undisclosed locations," says an RCAF official familiar with the area.
TODAY, perhaps more numerous than the mines on the old road are little signposts
nailed to trees along the new road, delineating new plots of land carved out from
the former KR territory.
Land - as always in Cambodia - seems in demand here. But rather than the former guerrillas
and the families taking fresh land, the new plots have mainly been meted out to high-ranking
RCAF officials, local sources say.
Elsewhere in the former "Liberated Zone", the principle of land reform
has been applied in a more traditional fashion.
Further north, in Pailin, individual ownership of land is now allowed and local authorities
- the former KR - have set up a commission to distribute 'state-owned' land to qualifying
"Each family in Pailin receives a 20 by 50 meter plot, and larger plots are
given to farmers outside the city limits," explains Seng Narin, a long-time
Pailin resident and the deputy commander of the newly established RCAF division 22,
made up of defectors.
At present, there are no plans to provide real estate to outsiders, but owners of
legitimate land titles are permitted to sell to newcomers.
Individual land ownership is not the only novelty for the former revolutionaries
Enjoying greater freedom, local entrepreneurs have set up a variety of local businesses.
In the middle of town, a 24-hour carpentry shop churns out beds and tables. Down
the road, a sprawling New Market is bustling from 6 am until late in the evening.
Stocked with goods from Thailand and now Battambang, it is a far cry from the modest
trading that took place only a few months ago.
For more entrepreneurial spirits, a quick walk outside of town along a wide and well
kept road leading to the Thai border, leads to the gem mines.
Once the monopoly of large - mostly Thai-owned - firms, gem mines have recently been
opened up to allow individual families to join the treasure hunt.
Today hundreds of people try their luck by hand-sifting through buckets-full of dirt
in the hope of finding precious rubies and sapphires.
Family members - many still clad in their Mao uniforms - disappear into deep holes
to scratch around and pass their finds to relatives waiting above. Selling the gems
to Thai or Khmer traders, they are allowed to keep the profits, they say.
Commercial gem-mining continues unabated. According to local people, the massive
excavators did not stop devouring the beautiful hillsides around Pailin even at the
height of last year's political upheaval.
"Before [the split] eighty-percent of the revenues from Pailin's gem mining
business went to the Angka Leu," says Seng Narin referring to the echelons of
Khmer Rouge hierarchy.
The split of profits these days, and how widely they are distributed, is unclear.
One thing is sure - the Royal Cambodian Government itself is not profiting financially.
Thai businessmen, flanked by their Cambodian counterparts from Phnom Penh and Battambang,
continue to cut deals with local authorities, but local sources agree that Phnom
Penh - or at least its State coffers - have yet to see a share of the revenues.
IT is a similar situation further north in Phnom Malai, where the pace of development
- on the surface at least - seems enough to make any NGO jealous.
Phum Dong, as the inhabited part of Phnom Malai is known, is hardly recognizable
as the sleepy village it was when thrown open to the outside world last September.
At every street corner, concrete is being poured for new buildings which are quickly
replacing the traditional wooden homes.
An international telephone office, also still under construction, is a dual sign
of the times - the end of years of isolation and the promise of new prosperity.
Slowly, people are returning to hamlets, like Khla Ngoap (Dead Tiger), places whose
names are legendary as bloody battlefields in the history of Cambodia's war. From
villages which a year ago were at the frontlines, you can now grab taxis plying the
newly opened road from Phum Dong to Yieng on National Route 5.
These areas are still heavily mined but, again, here are the property signs nailed
on trees claiming the freshly-available land; demining will presumably not be far
Peace may have come to what is now the land of DNUM - the Democratic National Union
Movement of Ieng Sary, based in Pailin and Malai - but it is clear that the former
KR continue to call the shots.
The degree of economic and adminstrative freedom given to DNUM by the government
is indicative of its strength: Pailin and Malai, at the heart of the breakaway KR,
represent the most battle-hardened of the former rebels. For Funcinpec and CPP, both
wooing the breakaway forces, they could be powerful allies - or opponents.
Neither of the coalition partners seems prepared to attempt to strengthen their control
of the regions, and risk driving them into the other party's hands.
In return, DNUM is, officially at least, playing a delicate game of neutrality. While
widely considered to be close to Funcinpec (Sok Pheap, effectively the governor of
Pailin, attended the Funcinpec-led National United Front congress in Phnom Penh last
month), DNUM officials in Pailin insist on their impartiality. Some express dismay
at Sok Pheap's visit to the congress, claiming that it was 'unofficial' and unauthorized.
If DNUM is sticking to a middle ground of Cambodian politics, the lines are already
starkly drawn in the area between Pailin and Malai.
In perhaps a deliberate policy of the CPP, its eyes on the powerful DNUM strongholds,
this middle region is increasingly falling under CPP influence.
Several schools are being built in Kum Rieng and Phnom Proek districts - roughly
halfway between Pailin and Malai - and informed sources say that the funding is from
These districts are relatively prosperous, with tapioca and corn grown as the main
cash crops - here a family can fetch up to 50,000 Baht (approx. $2,000) per season
by selling produce on the Thai markets.
North of Phnom Proek, the landscape is starkly different. Barren land extends as
far as the eye can see, against the backdrop of mountains that mark the border with
Thailand. The forests are gone-the result of years of intense exploitation by the
Khmer Rouge leadership.
This is Sampov Loun district - home to the former Khmer Rouge Front 250, an important
military stronghold during the KR time.
In 1993, the family of former KR defense minister Son Sen relocated here from Anlong
Veng. Son Sen's brother, Ny Korn-the former commander of Front 250- still lives in
the district, after surrendering last December.
Here - at the headquarters of former Front 250 - the political colors are today plain
for all to see: CPP signs on the building walls.
Whether the long-term effects of Phnom Penh's politics in this and other former rebel
zones will be positive or otherwise remain to be seen.
In the meantime, some of the negative aspects of life under the Cambodian government
has yet to reach these parts.
Along the roads though much of the former KR territory, there is little sign of the
rogue soldiers and illegal checkpoints which blot the landscape in neighboring RCAF
Instead, the checkpoints are official ones, manned by militia who appear disciplined
and thorough. From their posts, often wearing mismatched KR and RCAF uniforms, they
watch and wait for what's coming their way.