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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rebel rank-and-file roosting with northwest warlord

Rebel rank-and-file roosting with northwest warlord

THMAR POUK, Banteay Meanchey - A steady trickle of rank-and-file Khmer Rouge defectors

are still wandering in from the jungle and joining up with specific local army commanders,

say military officials.

The defections may add to the tangle of loyalties in what has historically been an

anti-CPP northwestern province.

One entire rebel division, the 76-man Division 519 based in Phnom Srok district,

defected to RCAF Division 7 Commander So Chan Heng on May 19.

"Their bodies are full of fighting, [but] they are tired of war," Chan

Heng said.

The soldiers in KR uniforms lounging around near Chan Heng's headquarters here -

about 40km north of provincial capital Sisophon - confirmed they had defected under

their commander Bun Thien. They expected more to follow.

"The strong army [the Khmer Rouge] is coming to defect, so the resistance is

nearly finished," said Lot Peuh, a Division 519 platoon commander.

The soldiers added that they wanted to vote and to live in peace.

Gen Ko Chhean, commander of Military Region 5, claimed that 300 KR soldiers had defected

in the past six weeks. "It's their last gasp," he said.

But the Division 519 soldiers made it clear they were defecting not to Second Prime

Minister Hun Sen, but to old ally So Chan Heng. "We have been in contact with

So Chan Heng. We think he will protect us," Lot Peuh said.

Chan Heng and his troops are former Khmer People's National Liberation Front resistance

fighters. So are the members of Gen Mei Sam Oeun's Division 12 in western O'Chrouv

and provincial commander Col Kuy Chan Mony's troops in Sisophon.

All are now part of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, although the troops remain

primarily loyal to their longtime commanders.

"The different loyalties of different armies in the province can make things

confusing," commented one aid worker.

Although all but one of the powerful commanders remained with the government after

July's coup, their history of battling the CPP - and their reputed control of lucrative

border trade areas - makes their loyalty questionable.

According to local rumor, Hun Sen had considered sending a CPP-loyal battalion into

the province as insurance - although this was denied by Chan Mony.

Only the former Division 12 commander, Gen Lay Vireak, forsook his CPP-aligned comrades

after July to join former allies Funcinpec and the Khmer Rouge in the resistance

again.

Asked if they dread fighting their former friend on behalf of Hun Sen - the man they

fought until 1992 - the government commanders professed stoicism.

"This is the soldier's principle," said Col Mony. "They are the rebels,

we are the government troops."

But in private, some commanders expressed doubt. "If I take off my soldier's

clothes, I don't know [if I like Hun Sen]," said one. Observers say the commanders

are pragmatic businessmen. Loyalty to the government serves them well, as they are

able to maintain what many claim are profitable mini-empires in their respective

districts.

"What [So Chan Heng] wants, what Lay Vireak wanted, is just to be left alone,

to make money, to command troops, and to keep control of the border," said a

military analyst.

Local residents claim that the division commanders each control a chunk of the border,

collecting "tolls" on legal or illegal vehicle cargo and often running

contraband into Thailand themselves.

"Everybody gets their fingers in the till, but people are pretty careful about

the way they do it now," said one longtime observer.

The commanders all deny any involvement in the border trade, but admit that smuggling

occurs.

"There is no official logging here," said Gen Phang Phon, a former Khmer

Rouge commander from Phnom Malai. "The government does not permit it. The only

logs being sold are smuggled."

The other commanders also admitted that logs and antiquities are getting over the

border - and even that some military officials have had a hand in it. So Chan Heng

claimed that his deputy commander, Bou Sngah, defected to the resistance in November

because he owed 6 million baht in a logging deal.

One analyst surmised that Lay Vireak's defection may have been along the same lines

- that Vireak was trying to cut in on the other commanders' territory and that he

was run out of town in a turf war.

In any event, resistance forces still are capable of wreaking havoc in Banteay Meanchey.

The most insecure areas are the northernmost district of Banteay Ampil - where NGOs

are not allowed to travel - and the central districts east and west of the main road.

On the night of March 8, 30-40 guerrillas briefly took control of Phnom Srok district

town, about 45km northeast of Sisophon, after skirmishing with local military.

The soldiers trashed the headquarters of a women's silk-weaving NGO and set a car

on fire as terrified residents hid in trees behind the house. They then forced another

NGO worker to lead them out of town before retreating, according to human rights

workers.

In another incident, seven monks were kidnapped by soldiers in K'Dep Thmar village,

about 35km northwest of Sisophon. Villagers and the local pagoda raised the ransom

of 10,000 baht each and the monks were returned safely. Human rights workers and

military authorities could not identify whether the kidnappers were resistance or

not.

Aid workers noted that homemade mines had been laid in the area, which would probably

indicate resistance activity.

However, banditry is rife throughout the province and most of the time victims have

little idea which faction of uniformed men are robbing them.

"Mostly, you get night-time attacks on villages. The soldiers loot rice, maybe

take hostages," said one aid worker. "Sometimes they're reported to be

wearing masks, so you wonder whether they're really all resistance or not."

If they are government soldiers, perhaps they are putting away money against a time

when their powerful commanders can no longer support them. Some observers believe

that a CPP election victory - leading to a tighter grip on the province - could herald

that time.

"Maybe their days of living the good life are numbered," a military analyst

said.

One provincial commander seemed to have similar worries. Laughing nervously, he said:

"Maybe after the elections, I will take off my uniform and become a farmer."

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