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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ten years after, O'Smach soldiers on

Ten years after, O'Smach soldiers on

Spread-eagled between two hills, the town of O'Smach lies on the lip of the Dangrek

escarpment in Cambodia's far northwestern province of Oddar Meanchey. The town is

a long, dusty drive from Phnom Penh on a road hard without the rain and muddy and

almost impassable with it. But it was to O'Smach that Funcinpec fighters fled following

then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian Peoples Party coup de main of July

5-6, 1997.

O'Smach still bears scars from the battle that raged ten years ago. Today, it's struggling

to survive: visitors to the two casinos built to resuscitate the town are dwindling

and the impoverished brother of Pailin and Poipet is increasingly dependent on cross-border

trade and temporary migration, with many locals saying they may leave for good.

The town has had a troubled history. A natural fortress atop a craggy plateau, O'Smach

was a base for anti-government forces in the 1980s and was home to large refugee

camps that straddled the border. Then, ten years ago, a worse conflict came.

"It was a hard long battle that I will never forget," said Mom Oun, 57,

a veteran of the fighting who still lives in O'Smach. "I never dream about it,

but I don't forget it either. What I remember is when someone shot at me-I shot back."

In the two weeks that followed the fighting in Phnom Penh, Funcinpec troops fled,

surrendered, or were routed. What first looked like the makings of a civil war stretching

across the northwest quickly became a localized conflict along Route 68 to Samrong

in what was then northern Siem Reap.

Oun, a professional soldier since 1980, was stationed in the RCAF Division 9 Headquarters

based in Samrong and was part of an artillery division loyal to Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

Under attack from CPP forces the royalist troops retreated up Route 68, blowing up

bridges and mining the area to slow the CPP advance.

Under Funcinpec strongman General Nhek Bun Chhay's command, they mounted their final

defense in O'Smach, laying thousands of mines to protect the enclave. As supplies

dwindled, they built homemade mines from 250-liter drums, fertilizer, metal, glass,

and nails. The mines were detonated when government troops approached.

"We worked very hard to lay as many mines as we could to protect ourselves,"

Oun said. "They killed and maimed a lot of soldiers, but kept us alive."

After a prolonged and furious close-range artillery battle, a stalemate ensued. The

town was divided into two hills: the "Cambodian Hill" occupied by government

forces and "O'Smach II," a hill hugging the Thai border occupied by Bun

Chhay's forces, who were dug into deep bunkers.

Separated by a deadly stretch of no-mans-land, these hills became the fraught, malaria-infested

home for thousands of soldiers over the next 18 months - and like malaria, the fighting

flared in sporadic but intense bouts.

"It was some of the hardest fighting I have been involved in," Oun said.

"There were some quiet periods as well but when it was bad it was very bad.

The whole town was burnt and destroyed."

Refugees

On August 28, 1997, a stray shell from CPP positions fell into Thailand, killing

one Thai soldier and injuring two others. Thailand had warned the factions to keep

the fighting within Cambodia and retaliated with a barrage of artillery on CPP positions.

The Thai government formally complained and Phnom Penh publicly apologized.

Meanwhile up to 30,000 refugees from the province had crossed the border into Thailand

where they were housed in camps.

"The fighting started and we were very scared," Heng Dina, 38, an O'Smach

resident recalled. "A lot of people died in the initial fighting, including

children. My brother lost his leg after an explosion. Then the next day we went across

the border to Thailand to a refugee camp."

An amnesty granted to Bun Chhay and his forces in late-1998 brought hostilities to

an end, but as the soldiers put down their weapons, land grabbing ensued. Many of

the fighters remained in town and locals still speak bitterly about returning to

find their homes destroyed, their land taken.

Hean Sokun, 62, fled to Battambang when the fighting started. "When I came back

my house had gone. Everything had been burnt or stolen and I had nothing left,"

she said.

Sokun eventually moved into the new market that was built as part of town's reconstruction.

Reconstruction

Two casinos opened in 2001 and O'Smach enjoyed something of a renaissance, with an

influx of gamblers visiting from Thailand as well as migrant labor - particularly

sex workers from Phnom Penh. In 2003, figures showed that up to 7,000 Thais were

crossing the border to play the casinos on weekends.

"Business was good for the first few years. I was a dressmaker and had many

customers. I sold jeans to Thai tourists," Sokun said. "But the last few

years there have been less tourists and many people have moved to the Thai market."

On a recent day the new market was nearly deserted. Stallholders said it had been

this way since 2004, when the Thai government, concerned about the number of Thais

gambling, enforced tightened border controls.

Dina, who runs a stall selling pirated CDs of Thai and Cambodian music, said visitors

to the market had all but evaporated.

"Before a lot of Thais came to the casino, but now you have to pay for a passport

so only the rich come to play-and they don't come down to the market," she said.

"Before we used to make about $250 per month but now we make very little. Sometimes

we lose money."

Dina said many vendors had moved across the border to the Thai market, but she was

planning to move to Battambang. "We just can't make a living here anymore,"

she said.

The same story echoed throughout the market. "I heard from relatives who used

to live here that it was a good place to make money and for the first few years it

was very good," said Duch Chivin, 47, who moved to O'Smach in 2001 from Kandal

province and runs a restaurant in the market. "There were lots of people coming

across the border but now it's getting very difficult. I have very few customers

now."

Chivin said the town was too isolated to grow unless the government made the long-promised

improvements to Route 68, which is unpaved and turns into a narrow, rocky, deeply

rutted 4-wheel drive track as it climbs the steep incline to town.

"Hun Sen has talked about building a new road through to the border to improve

the economy of the province," he said. "If the road is good, then tourists

from Thailand could travel from here down to Siem Reap. But we don't know when that

will happen. Some say that because this was a Funcinpec town, the government won't

help us."

Funcinpec buried

If O'Smach was a Funcinpec enclave ten years ago, there are no obvious signs of that

now - the town has had a CPP commune chief since 1998 and there is not a single Funcinpec

billboard in sight.

"This area is CPP now. There's no Funcinpec - it's just normal now," Sokun

said. "Anyway, it doesn't matter what the party is - I don't care about all

of that anymore - we just want a good person for commune chief."

Ean Lieng has been the town's CPP commune chief since 1998 and was upbeat about O'Smach's

prospects.

"When I arrived after the fighting the town was destroyed and there were mines

everywhere," he said. "Almost everyday, people got injured by mines - even

now from time to time people get injured. But O'Smach is more developed now: we have

guesthouses, schools, health centers, and a police station."

According to the Cambodian Mine Action Committee (CMAC), Oddar Meanchey -which also

includes the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng - was one of the most heavily

mined provinces in the Kingdom, but now CMAC estimates up to 70 percent of the area

has been de-mined.

"We don't really know how many mine fields there are or how big the area is

so we de-mine according to what we're told by the local people," said Khem Sophoan,

director general of CMAC. "They tell us where the mine fields are when they're

discovered."

Unfortunately, a minefield is usually only discovered by someone stepping into it,

and in O'Smach there are a high number of amputees.

Deputy Provincial Governor Chum Cheat said it was not just O'Smach that was struggling

to emerge from the post-coup conflict but the whole province - and the casinos hadn't

helped.

"Not many tourists are coming to Oddar Meanchey because of the border restrictions

and the bad roads," he said.

"Better roads would make a big improvement. But the casino's don't give money

to the province, it goes to the state, so we don't get any money from the casino

for development."

Wracked by conflict a decade ago, O'Smach is now fighting for its future- but it

is, at least, at peace.

Oun, who like many veterans settled in O'Smach, said he was happy now just to grow

beans and corn.

"If there's peace and development I'm happy," Oun said. "I don't want

to be involved in that kind of fighting again - when Khmers fight Khmers, only Khmers

are killed. It was just the same as all the fighting. It always impacts on the people:

when there's shooting, innocent people die."

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