Bou Saroeun and Matthew Grainger report on Samlot, a district on the move: fighting, looting, landmines and landless.
A looter roars merrily down Route 10 on his moto, heading for Battambang, with tin and timber pilfered from Samlot.
The cluster of 42 villages in Battambang province collectively known as Samlot - formerly home to around 40,000 people who are now refugees - is being cannibalized by soldiers and civilian neighbors desperate enough to brave mines and bullets to loot its vacant houses.
The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) are brokering the trade and protecting it as best it can.
Samlot is one of three Cambodian territories still technically at war, after Anlong Veng and the Funcinpec resistance town of O'Smach. Smaller in scale to the fighting at Anlong Veng, Samlot is however a similar muddling, bloody mess where RCAF has pushed the Khmer Rouge to the Thai border and beyond.
There the rebels have splintered and embraced the trusted hit-and-run tactics that have made them a dangerous, near unbeatable nuisance for years.
Samlot has been largely under-reported because journalists and NGOs can't go there. Not that it should matter. If you wait long enough in the right places, Samlot comes to you, usually on the back of a moto-cart.
Samlot's population was herded from the area in August last year in front of retreating rebel chiefs Ta Muth and Iem Phan. There are no civilians left now.
According to what is suspectedly an inflated Thai census, there are 46,000 people in two camps on the Thai border of Samlot, inland between Chantaburi and Trat. One is called Ban Ma Muang (known as Duem Cher Teal in Cambodia, which has around 35,000 people), the other Chong Khao Phlu (or O'Tea, population 11,000).
Hundreds more Samlot families live as displaced people in limbo within Cambodia; in Pailin (162 families), Rattanak Mondol (330) and Mong Russey (50).
Refugees who have recently escaped the KR-run camps and made their way back to temporary homes in and around Battambang say their biggest worries had been shortages of food and clean water, malaria, land mines ringing their perimeters and intimidation from armed rebels conscripting able-bodied men for missions.
Those estranged from Samlot wonder what they will find when they finally get back home.
They know well that their belongings and property are fair game for those controlling their communities. All they can do is shrug and continue to fashion some sort of existence until they're allowed back.
RCAF soldiers are living off the pigs, cows, chickens and even the dogs and ponies that the fleeing refugees left behind.
Now Samlot's houses and buildings are being dismantled, looted and sold.
Along the road between Pailin and Battambang (Samlot is reached by turning south halfway down Route 10 between the two towns), moto-carts carry the tin, timber and possessions that used to be Samlot.
It's good timber, the best available, already pre-cut and joined.
Civilians estranged from their Samlot homes try to patch together a new life.
Hong, a Battambang resident, says it used to cost 100,000 baht ($2,800) to build a decent house in his town. Now it's possible to do so for just 30,000 baht ($840), built from better materials looted from Samlot.
"Many people from Battambang are going into Samlot to steal wood and tin and other things," he says. "Many people are buying."
Adhoc markets, usually around Battambang railway station, set up, sell out and close down following every delivery from Samlot.
Tep Saveoun, an RCAF lieutenant now in a Battambang hospital with a smashed arm sustained in fighting last month, acknowledges the looting being done by former KR soldiers who defected to and stayed with the government.
"They work with some civilians who drive into Samlot and corrupt the soldiers," he says.
However most other locals - like the taxi drivers who probably know best - say that RCAF soldiers of whatever persuasion are virtually looting to order. Not surprising, many argue, given the paucity and scarcity of their pay.
One taxi driver said there was no way he nor any other driver he knows will travel to Samlot, whatever his passengers may pay.
Small Khmer Rouge hit squads prey on cars and motos that they believe, for good reason, are only making the trip to return with looted goods.
For those whose luck is out, the Khmer Rouge aren't being noted for their mercy. Some "traders" have yet to return from Samlot. Official "missing or dead" tolls are hard to come by.
It's clear that nothing angers the Khmer Rouge more than what's going on now. But whether Samlot's vililantes are soldiers belonging to Muth and Phan, or former Samlot KR now with the RCAF, is debatable.
One local man, Men Ry, 38, believes that the attacks against looters are being carried out by KR defectors who are fighting alongside RCAF soldiers.
"I think that the armed forces who shoot on the road are the inside soldiers - our forces - who are angry at the looters taking their villagers' houses," he says.
What's going to be left of the rich rice-growing lands of Samlot? Perhaps little more than pillaged ghost villages - now polluted by land mines.
Planting season in Samlot
Mine victim from Samlot
The looting may not cripple the recovery of Samlot when peace comes but the land mines probably will.
The Khmer Rouge has littered RCAF's frontal assault path with thousands of mines. Nowhere in Samlot can now be considered safe.
Kho Chhean, the commander of Military Region 5 in charge of Samlot, repeatedly scrawls a thick line on a crude hand-drawn map that shows the RCAF front with the Khmer Rouge, about 3-5km from the Thai border, and says simply: "Mines".
RCAF isn't laying them, he says, because they're the ones who are attacking.
Saveoun, the hospitalized lieutenant, says: "The people of Samlot will find it very, very difficult to go back there. There are mines everywhere, even near the houses and especially in the paddies."
Around Saveoun lie some of his colleagues, blood still oozing from their stumps. There were three mine victims out of six patients in one room alone.
Another patient had head injuries, one had malaria and looked like death, and Saveoun a broken arm (from a mortar that malfunctioned). According to hospital authorities, that's a fair indication of casualty proportions.
There are 136 casualties in 17 June (or Por Phi) military hospital, and more still in hospitals elsewhere. Most have stepped on land mines.
Chhean, speaking generally but frankly, reckoned he has lost "20 to 30" soldiers and "hundreds" more wounded. He didn't specify over what time, but fighting has recently been heavy - even given its guerrilla nature - and most of the wounded seemed fairly new.
KR casualties can only be guessed. Battambang hospitals don't see them to treat them any longer, something that apparently happened regularly up to 1996.
Chhean says that captured rebels are being invited to defect (again), or allowed to make their way back to their homes.
Some foreign embassies and humanitarian groups are anxious to begin work in Samlot, with demining topping the list.
But first there must be peace. Only then can the roads be demined. Clearance can then begin on land around homes and buildings, then rice paddies, and perhaps later the forests.
Rehabilitating an area so large, so potentially rich, and that has only been peaceful for such a brief moment, will probably take months if not years.
Testimonies from the voiceless
The Ban Ma Muang and Chong Khao Phlu camps were created by Muth and Phan with Thai consensus, bulldozed out of malarial forests near the Thai-Cambodian border, "protected" by land mines, and now run by loyal KR cadre.
Recent newspaper reports that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is about to repatriate 600 families back to Samlot from the Thai camps are wrong.
The UNHCR will not move refugees back to Cambodia if they can't be permanently resettled. For now Samlot's environment is not habitable.
Escapees from a KR-run Thai camp
The UNHCR can do so much - political lobbying and negotiation, and ensuring refugees' shelter, food and medical security, among other things - but only at Thailand's invitation. Cooperation between Thailand and the UNHCR on the issue of Cambodian refugees is said to be very good (coming at a time when Thailand has just pushed 25,000 Burmese refugees back over their own border).
The UNHCR will only repatriate Khmer refugees if it's done both voluntarily and safely. The Samlot people want to return but it's still too dangerous.
The Post talked to Samlot refugees who recently escaped from one of the camps run by a KR cadre they called Kleung.
It took them eight days, they said, to cross into Pailin and eventually make their way to friends and family, who themselves are "squatting" down Route 10. Others told of returnees coming through Poipet, Koh Kong, and even Sihanoukville on the coast via Phnom Penh. Only those with money (and courage and luck) can attempt the trek back.
They said that Kleung isn't allowing anyone to leave the camp, unless they want to chance it back the way they came - through mountains, minefields and a front-line.
They said their camps too were mined, and that guerrillas loyal to Muth and Phan enter freely to conscript men to accompany them on guerrilla missions.
These claims were later understood by authorities familiar with the camps as being correct.
One refugee said that Kleung specifically didn't want the people going to Pailin, for fear of strengthening Pailin's influence.
Nheim Pheap, 40, who escaped on foot with ten other refugees on May 1, claims that many people inside the camps feel they have to register with the UNHCR in secret.
"If Mr Kleung finds out about people registering, he calls a meeting and tells them they are not allowed to [register] their desire to leave the camp," he says.
She says Kleung told everybody they had to wait until "an agreement" is made - apparently between Muth and Phan and the government. The people were told such an agreement was likely to be made in May.
A former KR cadre now in charge of Division 17, Nhiem Kong - who resisted Phan and Muth and stayed with the government last August - says that some refugees are paying Thai middlemen 20,000 baht ($560) for help to escape.
"The people want to flee the ideology of Iem Phan and Ta Muth. They are still following the old dictatorial policy of Pol Pot... they haven't changed.
"The people can't set up markets in the camps. They can't sell anything, they can't listen to music. It's the old Pol Pot policy."
Each day Kong gets more families turning up on his doorstep. There are a dozen or so people now living underneath his house, including two women who have malaria and are on intravenous drips.
"The people just want to get out [of the camps]," he says.
Although the UNHCR will not repatriate refugees only for them to become internally displaced - and therefore somebody else's problem - at least those people now living temporarily along Route 10 are being well catered to by international groups and NGOs.
The refugees are a political football, as is so often the case. In Cambodia, the powerful CPP party is suspicious of Thai motives to perhaps overstate the refugee population, to put pressure on Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
There is some concern that authorities from Battambang and Banteay Meanchey don't want a refugee or IDP problem at their doorsteps.
On the other hand, Pailin supremo Ee Chhean - who has little love for Muth or Phan, refusing as they did his advances to join with a Pailin-Malai autonomous "defection" in 1996 - is understood to be warm to the idea of having thousands of new civilians strengthening his fold.
Back to the future
Samlot has had a feisty history.
Author David Chandler (The Tragedy of Cambodian History, 1991, Yale University) says Samlot's three month anti-government rebellion of 1967 spilled into widespread civil war before eventually being quelled by Sihanouk - a full eight years before Pol Pot's DK victory in Phnom Penh.
Hundreds were killed in Samlot and villages were razed and renamed. Sihanouk, Chandler says, "correctly perceived the uprising as being leftist harassment of Lon Nol and local radicals' impatience with [having] newcomers in their 'Red Khmer land and fields'". Sihanouk's wrath at leftists following the Samlot rebellion prompted Khieu Samphan and Hou Youn to flee Phnom Penh for Pol Pot's small but burgeoning communist movement.
Pol Pot, writing about the party's history ten years later, said Samlot's uprising was set off by the local people, and that the Party Central Committee had not yet decided on armed insurrection.
Samlot had previously sheltered Viet Minh and Issarak rebels, and was chosen by Sihanouk because of its rich potential as a major resettlement area for refugees after independence. Nuon Chea - Brother Number 2 - has had strong ties with the Samlot region since the 1950s.
Samlot has been a Khmer Rouge stronghold almost continuously since 1979.
Muth, with his wife Khom (Ta Mok's daughter, who died in 1977), introduced collective dining to Samlot in the early 1970s, which earned him both the party's praise and a localized rebellion. He rose through the party ranks through nepotism. Researcher David Ashley says that Muth was demoted in 1992 for corruption.
Up to 1996, Samlot's three "main men" were Muth, Iem Phan and military commander Nhiem Kong, though Nuon Chea, Ta Mok and former DK defense Minister Son Sen - since killed - retained strong influence and overriding control.
In October 1996 Pailin's Ee Chhean and former DK Foreign Minister Ieng Sary bluntly courted Samlot to join with them and Sok Pheap's Phnom Malai in an autonomous breakaway from Pol Pot and Ta Mok.
Kong said that Samlot had to refuse. "They wanted to collect all our trucks and machinery for themselves. The people would have had no freedom of transportation - we could not agree."
KR commune chief Men Yon said that Nuon Chea and Ta Muth plainly neither liked nor trusted Sary. Muth - enhancing his reputation as somewhat of a clown - later led a Ta Mok-inspired attack on Pailin which petered out and saw Muth, Phan and Ny Korn briefly thrown in a Pailin jail for "reeducation", before eventually making their way back to Samlot.
Kong said Samlot opted to defect straight to the government "who didn't confiscate anything. They let our people stay were they were, and whoever was in charge to remain so".
For ten months, Samlot seemed to enjoy its salad days.
Yon said: "After the defection the people were really happy. They opened markets and traded freely. They tilled their farms for themselves.
"Some could even buy a car if they wanted. We were free to walk where we chose, to visit our relatives, and invest our money in Thailand," Yon said.
It was very tough before the defection, he added. Local people had to lay down thousands of [sharpened bamboo] punji sticks along the front-line. One in ten were disabled by mines, he says (gently cradling his own stumped leg).
But while the people were happy, Muth and Phan were in darkening moods.
The pair aren't intelligent, Kong says. "Iem Phan only studied to Level 8 and Muth was a teacher in the pagoda," he said. They wanted the top jobs. Instead Phan was put in command of RCAF Division 16, Kong had Division 17, and another cadre, Chhien, had Division 18.
Muth was entrusted with nothing. Phan wanted control of everything.
"Phan wants to be the main man, wherever he might be," Kong says, "the big man, in control of it all."
Region 5 commander Kho Chhean agreed: "They were just disappointed with the rankings they'd been given."
Hun Sen's coup against Prince Ranariddh last July provided the excuse for Muth and Phan to do something with their resentment.
The spark came from Battambang's First Deputy Governor Serey Kosal and royalist soldiers loyal to him fleeing from CPP forces into Samlot.
One of Kosal's loyal "friends" pointed a gun to Kong's head, telling him to order his troops from Division 17 to defect back to the resistance against Hun Sen. Kong contents himself to say "I refused".
Chhean says that Mok chose this time as ripe to reestablish dialogue with his former son-in-law and the equally disgruntled Phan.
"Mok sent Ta Ngoun, Ta Nou, Touch and Ran to contact Phan and Muth to follow Pol Pot policy, and to use the pretext of a timber dispute to continue the struggle," Chhean says.
The Samlot area
Kong says however that the timber dispute was a key issue for Muth, who has somewhat of a history of being caught with his fingers in the cash register.
Phan, meanwhile, was having his ego massaged beautifully by Nhek Bun Chhay and was given the title "second deputy chief-of-staff" within Bun Chhay's own "RCAF".
In a blink, Samlot was back at war.
Its population was herded out. Kong says Phan and Muth paid Thai military authorities 30 million baht to gain free access across the border to establish sanctuary.
Just two months ago, in February, Kosal, Muth and Phan suffered a blow when former ANKI and Funcinpec general Kheang Savorn defected back from the Samlot-based resistance, lambasting Ranariddh for "never thinking about" his men fighting for his name on the border, according to local press.
At the same time, according to Kho Chhean, Phan and Muth made overtures that they may be prepared to stop fighting in return for control of Samlot "in the same way as Pailin".
That suggestion was laughed at.
"Samlot and Pailin are so different," Chhean says. "Samlot is just the district of Battambang. Ee Chhean brought all his own people, wholeheartedly. Muth and Phan are just in the mountains with a few men."
In a bizarre turn of events, Kong and others say that Kosal has recently been active around the border, boasting that the United States is arming and supporting the resistance.
Kong, and those fighting for Samlot, are aware that one US politician had recently talked to resistance chief Nhek Bun Chhay and inspected his rebel fighters.
"Why does America want to involve itself in Cambodia again?" says Kong.
"If Khmer are just left alone to sort out the problem with Khmer, it will be all over very quickly. I think maybe America has not yet finished its anger against Cambodia, because it lost after the Lon Nol regime."
Now, Chhean says that straggling KR defectors have "rumored" that Muth and Phan want to parley - again - with Deputy Chief of General Staff Meas Sophea.
This coincides with "Mr Kleung" telling Ban Ma Muang refugees to expect "an agreement" sometime this month.
But privately, Chhean - a former KPNLAF fighter, and great mates with his childhood school friend Bun Chhay (though he "can't understand what Bun Chhay is doing") - reckons Muth and Phan might just be trying to buy some time to regroup or flee.
Officially however, the government "wants to finish the war," he says. The impression is that the RCAF is wearily and warily prepared to talk some sense to the Khmer Rouge pair again.
"But I think if Ta Mok is killed, Muth and Phan will be finished around Samlot too," Chhean says.
"They aren't big men."