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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Preah Vihear: northern isolation

Preah Vihear: northern isolation

T 'Beng Meanchey, Preah Vihear - The main road in and out of this remote northern

province cuts a dirty-orange path through heavy forest. In places it looks

almost like a river.

But as for actually travelling on the road - forget

it. The only way to safely follow Preah Vihear's Route 12 is from about 6,000

feet in the air.

That's high enough to avoid much damage from a stray

AK-47 bullet, according to Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF) pilot Winston


Last year Ussher's plane - then operated by a French aviation

company - was shot at during a low-level flight over Kratie. The bullet hit a

Malaysian businessman sitting in the front seat, just above the right hip and

finishing up near his left shoulder. It went through five vital organs (any one

of which would have been fatal, says Ussher). The French pilot later told Ussher

that all he felt at the controls was a light tap, while the man beside him

shuddered and died.

The plane has since been taken over by the non-profit

Christian organization MAF and is now the only non-military aircraft to fly into

Preah Vihear (at $700 return), over land more isolated and as dangerous as any

in Cambodia.

The land and spectacular plateau-top mountains around the

provincial capital T'Beng Meanchey are thick with forest: a most beautiful,

barely touched tropical countryside.

Ussher and his front seat passenger

sit on military-style Kevlar anti-flak blankets.

Preah Vihear is as good

as cut off from the rest of the country.

It's 90,000 population is unable

to move around freely. No more than 500 Khmer Rouge guerrillas, most based in

Thai territory according to police, have strangled a province they have named

their "capital". Thai military and government have denied the claim of a KR base

on their soil.

They mine and ambush the road south out of the province at

will, despite local authorities having nearly 200 police and a claimed 1,000

soldiers protecting it.

The area around Rovieng, 60kms south of T'Beng

Meanchey, is mined, as is that 50kms east to Chhep on the way to Stung Treng.

There is KR activity near enough to Kulen (30kms west) to make that trip too

dangerous at present. The army "shares" Preah Pralai mountain 80kms away on the

Thai border with the KR and has surrounded the nearby Preah Vihear temple. Fifty

occupying guerrillas know the temple won't be attacked for fear of it being

damaged. CT1, the main crossing into Thailand, has just been lost to the KR. It

remains closed, which hurts the KR less than it does local people who need


"For the present time I can guarantee the security 100 percent

(in T'Beng Meanchey) but you can't visit other districts. Some district towns

have very good security... others don't," provincial deputy governor Khun Kuy

Hour says.

He says there are 10,000 armed men protecting the province:

from army HQ, local soldiers, police and "local militia". The figures are hard

to verify.

The Post understands the army has a high desertion rate in the

province. "What happens when Phnom Penh doesn't pay the soldiers?" Hour was

asked. "No problem, if there is nothing to eat they just run away," he


But in the main "they are doing a good job of keeping the KR

quiet... but it is difficult to protect the people. (The KR) can easily move

from place to place," he says.

If its not the KR restricting movement,

its the rain. Loose dirt roads are quickly destroyed by downpours "and this is a

big problem," Hour says.

Four of the Preah Vihear's seven districts don't

have hospitals. It lacks school buildings and educational


There are about 6,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), most

of whom need feeding. Malaria is rife. More than a third of this season's rice

harvest has been ruined by drought and flood.

What rice there is in this

normally self-sufficient province cannot easily be transported to local markets.

Many people are expected soon to run out of rice.

The World Food

Programme (WFP) has abandoned the province in the meantime because it is too

expensive to fly in food, and too dangerous to move by road.

Each of the

last four convoys lost at least one truck to mines and there are few, if any,

trucking companies in Kompong Thom or Phnom Penh now willing to risk Route 12.

Thirty-three people were killed in two seperate incidents of trucks (one

carrying gasoline) hitting mines in the past few months.

There is only

one NGO based in Preah Vihear - Action Internationale Contre la Faim (AICF) -

working on its own "Food for Work" program.

The only Westerner living in

the province, AICF supervisor Denis Girard, has had bullets sprayed at his feet

and past his head by a drunk RCAF soldier during one incident.


Frenchman can only at present supervise his projects - 15 in total, such as road

repairs, dykes, schools, bridges and ponds - around the provincial capital. Its

too dangerous to travel to outlying districts.

"Everyone says I am

crazy," he says. Deputy governor Hour says AICF is "a very brave organization to

come to Preah Vihear... they are very important for the poor people... the


WFP initially used AICF as its local agent. WFP promised 100

tonnes of rice but could only truck in 80 tonnes before giving up.


is angry at being 20 tonnes short. He won't give his local project supervisors a

three percent cut of the distribution like WFP does ("and now there is a

problem, because the supervisors expect it," he says); and he wants to "work

closely with the people" in a way that he says the large WFP projects don't


"Each morning people come and say 'I have no food. Give me work'.

So I do. WFP don't work like that. I don't have to fill in a blue and a pink and

a white report... I have more flexibility."

"The first thing I did was to

ditch WFP. AICF is not interested in the United Nations."

WFP tried to

give AICF lots of latitude in its work, visiting WFP regional officer Henning

Scharpff counters.

AICF gives local workers about ten times more food

than other WFP projects do, and Girard supervises the projects less strictly

than would WFP.

But eventually it was the lack of security that prompted

WFP to leave.

"I was trying to get 70 tonnes of rice (by road) but I

wasn't pushing too hard," Scharpff says. "At the end of last week I said: No

more, at least for the time being."

Neither men say they want to be

responsible for deaths to ensure that rice reaches the province. The WFP has

1,000 tonnes of rice in Kompong Thom that can be moved as soon as the road


Girard is awaiting a convoy "at some time" but meanwhile has been

permitted by the government to buy rice locally - a practise normally shunned by

NGOs because of its inflationary effects. The WFP will probably, though

reluctantly, do the same "because we have no alternative," Sharpff


"There is a lot of rice in the district but with the KR blocking

roads the farmers can't sell it," Girard says.

Girard gives tinned

sardines and cooking oil to his workers as well as rice. Some of it ends up in

the local market "which is fine," he says.

Even the local monks - who

can't get enough food during their daily rounds of the villagers - are on AICF

food distributions.

Leaders from a remote village that had been attacked

by the KR turned up one morning for emergency supplies, and spoke of their

houses being burned and one man killed.

Many people congregate at the

AICF headquarters, getting work assignments at the start of the day and food at

the end.

Its not how WFP would work but Scharpff acknowledges that there

is now little choice.

The WFP appointed other local agencies - including

the Ministry of Rural Development and Women In Development - to begin "Food for

Work" projects "but they weren't too enthusiastic about it," he says. "(The WFP)

can't run a regular program here."

"This is not the poorest province...

Look around, the houses are not too bad, the farmers are not the poorest in


"The province has an income through logging but its a private

income. They could probably spend money on IDPs if they wanted...," Scharpff


There are ten saw mills in T'Beng Meanchey and each one gets logs

from the forest "every day", says the owner of one mill.

But now business

is slow, and not because of any government ban. "Its the rainy season so the

trucks can't regularly get to the forested sites, its too muddy," says the

owner, who preferred not to be named.

He says he owns his own truck, but

its widely known around town that the military trucks bring in the best quality


He says he cuts logs from a forest site about 10km from town, and

during the dry season can handle about five cubic meters of wood a


The owner - who pulled up a carved chair of first-quality, white and

red hard wood, which he makes on site - says he came to Preah Vihear because in

his home province of Kompong Cham he had "no party, and knew no-one of high

rank." He says he does not sell uncut logs.

Police chief Chea Vuthy says

that police were working with officers from the Ministry of Forestry to stop

people without proper licenses to log.

"People with proper permission can

still cut wood," he says.

Governor Hour says that locals are "destroying

forests" to clear land for temporary rice planting, a practise he is trying to


One way, he says, is to provide locals with fertilizer to ensure

the cleared land could be used for longer than one or two seasons.

As far

as developing a province that has 90 percent forest cover, Hour says: "There is

only one thing we can do now, and that is to log."

"We do things

according to the government policy. If they say stop (logging), we must stop."

Later he says "but how can the Preah Vihear province develop


Phnom Penh gave the province 500 million riel ($20,000) in 1994

for road building. "If they spend $30 million on roads in Kompong Som, we would

need more than $100 million," he laughs.

The saw mill owner - who was

wary that questions would "disturb his business" and hoped that his interviewers

could "return to Preah Vihear as friends in the future" - says: "Please tell our

story in Phnom Penh... The people of Preah Vihear are miserable. There is no

communication and no transport. The road is blocked by mines and the KR ambush


"Someone must do something to help".



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