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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Recruits dry up at center for ex-KR

Recruits dry up at center for ex-KR

T

HE government's amnesty and re-education program for Khmer Rouge defectors

seems to have fallen out of favor with KR cadre.

KR defectors are

re-educated in three-month courses at the Khmer National Army Reconciliation

Center at Dei Eth, about 30 km south of Phnom Penh, and then given the choice of

returning to civilian life or joining the Royal Army at the same rank they

formerly had with the KR.

After much initial enthusiasm, radio appeals

from the two Prime Ministers last August and leaflets air-dropped over KR

controlled areas, enrollment at the center has dropped sharply.

Soon

after the first appeals several hundred KR came to Dei Eth, and the first course

which ended last November had 599 defectors. The fourth course which ended on

May 3 had 198 defectors and the Center now has just 77 defectors enrolled in the

program.

Defectors in Dei Eth say that while they were attracted by the

national reconciliation theme of the government's plea, the center itself had

acquired a bad reputation among those planning to quit the guerrilla group.

While military officers at the Center say more than 90 percent of

graduates from the Center join the RCAF, the defectors say a job in the army,

the main lure of the amnesty program, now holds little attraction.

An

independent investigation into the program by a human rights organization says

it has been "marred by corruption involving top army commanders, cases of

ill-treatment of defectors and attempted killings of several

defectors."

The head of the center, General Say Khon, said: "We did have

complaints earlier, but since the end of the first course we have had no

problems. It is difficult to recruit cadre. We have to go deep into jungles. We

expect more here anytime."

A former Khmer Rouge soldier from Kompong

Thom, Colonel Leng Dorn, who now works with the army at the center would not

accept numbers had reduced significantly.

But he said that when he went

to Kompong Thom six weeks ago he was only able to recruit eight defectors,

whereas in March he had found 23 on a similar trip.

The program was

discredited within one month after the first course started last September.

There were so many defectors, more than 900 at one point, that an additional

center was set up in Russey Keo near Phnom Penh. About 245 former rebels were

taken there in October.

It soon emerged more than 200 of them were fake

KR who had paid an official between $350-$500 each to land a job in the

army.

A fake defector, in a testimony to a human rights organization

which was investigating the case, said: "When we first went to the center we

were told we had to say we were KR defectors, only then did we know we had been

duped. Some of us had sold land and buffaloes to raise the money to join the

program."

Other defectors in the Russey Keo Center complained of beatings

and humiliating punishments for minor offenses, like being made to crawl with

hands tied behind their backs and to stand in the sun for several hours. They

also complained of not being allowed to meet their families.

When asked

about these allegations General Khon reportedly told an official from a local

human rights organization that these were "only minor punishments for those

trying to escape."

According to an independent investigation, more than

200 people later escaped from the centers including several who were genuine KR

soldiers. The Russey Keo Center was closed late last year and all the remaining

genuine defectors were transferred to Dei Eth.

The program suffered a

further blow in early December last year when a Khmer Rouge commander of a

secret unit called Division 207 and his deputy were shot in broad daylight in

Meanchey district in Phnom Penh. The actual reason for the shooting remains a

mystery.

The two men defected last August and had reportedly, on orders

from the military in the Dei Eth Center, rallied some 170 other KR from Kompong

Thom, Kompong Speu and Kompong Cham to defect.

The pair, after they were

discharged from hospital, were asked to recruit more defectors. They asked for

more time to recover.

They were then expelled from the Center along with

92 of the people they had recruited on Jan 31. A senior military officer who had

signed the expulsion order reportedly said they were fake defectors.

But

an international human rights organization says that on the basis of several

interviews they had with the men they were in fact bonafide KR.

A

spokesman for the organization said: "Their claims of being real KR were

substantiated by documents and information from other sources. Most of them felt

betrayed and returned to the forest to rejoin the KR army."

Defectors

presently in Dei Eth say escapees from the Center have spread bad stories which

have deterred many potential defectors from coming to Dei Eth.

A

defector from KR regiment 277 which operates in Koh Kong said: "We heard that

people are not treated well by the military in the Center. Some defectors from

earlier courses who could not bear life in the Center escaped and returned to

the jungles telling others not to go to Dei Eth."

Defectors also say the

army is no longer a big draw. A defector from Division 802 in Kompong Thom

province said: "KR soldiers know the army is corrupt, the soldiers have received

no pay for months and they are fighting all the time. No one wants to join the

army if they can help it."

Defectors now at the Center say there is no

major ill-treatment. A defector from KR division 802 said: "We are not treated

like before, but we have no freedom. We cannot go out, the discipline here is

too strict. We have no money even to buy cigarettes. Life in the jungle was

easier than this."

Defectors also say that they have so far learned

little and spend most of their time planting banana trees and building a road in

the Center.

A local human rights organization which had trained earlier

batches of defectors in human rights, democracy and the new constitution, has

not gone back since the last course finished in early May apparently because

there are not enough defectors.

Defectors say the program now has so

little attraction that KR soldiers who want to defect simply leave or surrender

to local authorities.

A defector from Division 802 said: "Most KR prefer

to disarm quietly by approaching provincial military authorities and giving up

their weapons.

"Most would prefer to return to their villages and

families. Only those who have no alternative to joining the army come to Dei

Eth."

An official working with a local NGO which trains defectors says

the government needed assistance to fund the Center and to find teachers who

could equip defectors to return to normal life.

She said: "Not many

organizations are willing to help the government because it is seen as too

political, too controversial. That makes it even more difficult to run."

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