C OMMUNISM doesn't seem in vogue in Phnom Malai. There appears to be a rich and a
poor class, land is privately owned and those who can afford it can buy shares in
at least one local shop.
The average household income is around 478 Thai Baht ($19) a month, according to
an informal survey of 16 houses by a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)
team who spent a day at Malai Sept 3. Some people, however, appear better-off.
"There are two standards of living," said MSF representative Maurits Van
Pelt after visiting Malai, noting that richer people seemed to live in particular
The MSF team noted a thriving cross-border trade with Thailand.
They visited a shop which they were told was half owned by the "state"
- Democratic Kampuchea - and half by private individuals. The shop, which turns a
profit, sells goods bought in Thailand.
Van Pelt said the MSF team members, who walked from the Thai border to get into Malai,
were allowed to wander around and speak freely with the locals.
On average, the 16 houses they visited each had five people living in them.
The main income seemed to come from growing corn, rather than rice. There were few
cows but many chickens.
During a journalists' visit to Malai Sept 9, locals told the Post they sometimes
got rations of rice from the authorities to supplement their own crops
Soldier Nget Saroeun said his family of five got a total of 150 cans of rice each
"We also make money by selling corn we grow and use the money to buy foodstuffs.
Sometimes people cross the border to Thailand to sell crops."
Villager Mom Samoeun said she and her two children were now getting 45 kilograms
of rice from the local leadership; her husband, a soldier, got a separate ration.
She said the amount of help from the local administration depended on each year's
"If the year is bad, we don't receive any assistance at all."
How much food - particularly corn and soybeans - that each family could grow on their
own depended on how many people and how much land they had.
Land was privately owned, but families with bigger plots were expected to give up
some land for newly-arriving people.
"Whoever came here first took the land. They can own land and farm on it depending
on the size of their family," said Samoeun, who arrived in Malai three years
"People who come later can ask for a piece of land from the other people, and
they get given a small piece. If they leave, they must give the land back."
She said her family never grew enough to sell surplus crops, and sometimes not enough
to feed themselves. They often depended on rations from local officials.
Villagers said they all had the right to own property if they could afford it, and
most were anxious to make more money to do so.
It was unclear for how long private ownership - rather than state-owned collectivization
- has been allowed at Malai. One villager said the ownership rules were relaxed two
or three years ago, but he could not say how and why.
More than 40,000 people live in the KR breakaway area - from Malai south to Pailin
- according to data given to MSF by local cadre.
Van Pelt said they were told there were eight schools around Malai, and 2,500 pupils
with 63 teachers. They reportedly get taught, Khmer, English, history and mathematics.
MSF also saw a group of children crossing back into Cambodia apparently after attending
school in Thailand.
Van Pelt said the Malai people seemed to have some basic freedoms such as holding
celebrations and worshipping Buddha.
"They can dance and sing for the Chaul Chhnam Khmer (New Year) and Pjum Ben,
(celebration of the dead).
MSF was told a local pagoda had been destroyed, apparently on the orders of Son Sen,
but was being rebuilt.
Locals appeared concerned that their opening up to outside influences could produce
some bad results.
"They told me that they were no prostitutes in their zone and they were worried
that HIV would come with the opening of the zone.
"They feel ashamed to speak about commercial sex workers and they seem to be
very strict about 'selatoah' [morality]."