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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A smile from a murderer; safe haven from the Thais

A smile from a murderer; safe haven from the Thais

A most unusual exodus. An excavator-full of refugees' bags from Anglong Veng.

SRAE PRAI, Sisaket, Thailand - Along the road to the camp, a makeshift market has been set up, selling food, clothes and other goods. Eating ice-cream and drinking Sprite lemonade, men in green uniforms with Mao caps and their families mill around, shopping and chatting with the Thai vendors.

For the Khmer Rouge, coming here to Phusing district of Thailand's Sisaket province is like coming to visit their friends and neighbors - or business partners. There is a direct road from Anlong Veng, about 20km across the border into Cambodia, through Chong Sa Ngam pass.

This time, it is more serious. The Khmer Rouge are here for sanctuary to escape the government's intensive shelling of Mountain 200, where Ta Mok and his guerrillas fled after losing Anlong Veng.

Cornered near the mountain just inside Cambodia, KR civilians and unarmed guerrillas were permitted by Thailand to cross its border May 1. Between 10,000 and 15,000 are believed to have crossed in three days.

The Thai military were well prepared, starting with a press conference on the night before the refugees began streaming over, at which they announced that they expected 25,000 refugees (figures of up to 50,000 were later claimed). A temporary refugee camp near the Huay Samran dam, about 9kms inside Thailand, was prepared, and NGOs alerted to help.

The usually restricted area along the border was opened to journalists to report on the crisis. The press, quoting Thai authorities, wrote about malnourished and sick children fleeing artillery barrages. As a group of journalists prepared to leave May 2, a Thai major asked them to wait for the arrival of some wounded KR soldiers.

Here, as the bulk of what is left of the KR settled on Thai soil, the lines seemed blurred - what was humanitarian aid, what was public relations, and what, at worst, was conspiracy to preserve the last remnants of one of the world's most brutal revolutionary movements?

Legitimate refugees they are, fleeing a legitimate threat from fighting, but unusual refugees they are too. First, they came not only on foot, bicycle or ox-cart but many crowded onto convoys of logging trucks, giant earth-moving machines, tractors and Landcruisers. Later, the 30 or so modern trucks - which can only have been bought in Thailand, and which were without number plates - were all neatly grouped in another area. A guerrilla cadre remarked to a Thai reporter that they removed the trucks from the main refugee area because it wouldn't have set a good image of the KR.

While some refugees had nothing but backpacks, rice pots and a chicken or two, many of them were literally moving house. Huge bags of rice, children's tricycles, sewing machines, beds and even the tin roofs of their Anlong Veng homes were with them. "We didn't have time to take anything, only what we were wearing," one woman claimed, before acknowledging that the nice wooden bed she was sitting on had come across the border with her.

Here, on Thai soil, under Thai supervision and receiving international help, it was clear that - for the refugees at least - the KR were still in control. Ta Mok's chief of staff, Khem Nguon, was spotted at the camp; he appointed two KR cadre as de facto camp leaders, sources said. One of the cadre - Ta (Grandfather) Ly - traveled freely to and from the border area in a white Landcruiser.

The thousands of women, men and many children - a budding new generation of KR - set up their shelters where the leaders told them to, and moved when their leaders told them. To journalists, they answered questions the way they have clearly been told to.

"I was afraid of the yuon [Vietnamese]. The yuon were chasing me. I had to run away. I will stay here as long as the leader tells me to stay," explains Som, a woman aged about 50.

Nearby sat a group of young men, like many in the camp dressed in regular KR army uniform. Asked if they were soldiers, they look at each other then insisted they were civilians. Down the road, a few more men are a little more open. "We just came to settle our families, make sure they are fine, then go back to fight the Vietnamese army," says Chueng.

Yen, a teenager, is talkative, rare in a camp where most answer "I do not know" or "It depends on the leaders" to virtually any question. "We will fight until we have Cambodia back. I love Ta Mok because he gives us hope and help. Ta Mok wants peace but he wants the Vietnamese and Hun Sen to go away. If he dies, we will be arrested by the Vietnamese."

A Thai policeman walking around the camp says the same. "They will go back and fight, I am sure of that." A longtime observer of the KR movement remarks: "It's like in the 80s. They come here to take care of the family, relax a bit and then go back to the battle fields."

A cadre of the future? A child of the revolution

For the soldiers the fight goes on. There is no reason to negotiate with the "Vietnamese puppets". On rumors of a split within their leadership, the men simply deny it. Asked when they would return to Cambodia, all of them say that they will wait and see whether the election is free and fair. "If Hun Sen respects the result, Prince Ranariddh and Khieu Samphan will win. I do not want to go back before the election because I will have to ask mercy from Hun Sen," says Ren.

Very few are prepared to depart from the robotic official line, except for one old man - with a sick wife and child and clearly nothing to his name - who must have slipped through the net of Mok's much-vaunted development schemes.

"By our law, it is the poor people who have the power. But really, in Anlong Veng, it was the rich who had the power," he complains, adding: "The law says we cannot bring in any mechanical things, and other goods."

Asked about the trucks, tractors and other possessions, he shrugs that the rich of Anlong Veng are allowed such things, not the poor.

He says that, sure, the KR people do not like Hun Sen and think he is Vietnamese, but many don't like Mok either and think he is a dictator. Who do they like? "Ranariddh is good. If all the power went to him they would be happy."

An educated young man, speaking some English, is despondent. "I have no hope. There will be no negotiations between the different parties but the soldiers who do not like Ta Mok will go with Hun Sen. Ta Mok does not like Hun Sen, he cannot negotiate with him. I feel very sorry. The 1993 election was a big opportunity but we missed it" - the sound of shelling rolls in from Mountain 200 in the distance - "and here we are today."

As the camp gets crowded, a second is set up. This area is familiar to the KR. On the road from Anlong Veng, it is behind the Na Tambon military checkpoint next to a warehouse where the KR usually park their logging trucks, according to locals, about 7km inside Thailand.

A refugee points his finger to a group of trees next to the warehouse. "That is Ta Mok's rubber plantation," she says. A Thai businessman drives up and says with a grin: "I came to see my friends and neighbors." This area, coincidentally, is in Phusing district, which used to be part of Khukan district. Khukan has a long association with Ta Mok, who owns a service station, sawmill and other businesses there, according to numerous reports from local villagers in recent years.

Meanwhile, the war goes on. There are yuon to fight, even if no one really knows what they are fighting for. A group of refugees are given an old Phnom Penh Post, with a picture of Pol Pot on the cover. One points to a picture of a Tuol Sleng prison victim and asks if that is Brother No 1. After 20 years in the KR, he never knew what Pol Pot looked like.

A surly man in KR uniform, who refuses to give his name but is identified by others as a military cadre named Vorn, is handed a copy of the Post's "Pol Pot" issue. Without a word, he flicks through it, studying the picture of a dead Pol Pot, of Ta Mok, Khieu Samphan and others. He quickly turns the page when he gets to a photograph of a pile of skulls and bones, and then reaches the back page with photographs and a story about a massacre of "Vietnamese" fishermen and their families in Kampong Chhnang last month. "That's your work, I think," he is asked. "Yes," he replies. It is the only time he has smiled in 20 minutes of attempted conversation.

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