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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Terror strikes deminers in northwest

Terror strikes deminers in northwest



Two children were killed and their mother injured when bandits fired a B-40 rocket at their home.

BOEUNG TRAKOUN, Banteay Meanchey - On a moonless night June 18, soldiers attacked

this sleeping village of 620 families 67km northwest of Sisophon.

Seven attackers sprayed automatic weapons fire into thatched huts of the Cambodian

Mine Action Center (CMAC). Deminer Kom Pongsakom was shot in the back and killed

as he crouched in bed over his wife and two children.

Five houses away, a B-40 rocket smashed into a hut, setting it ablaze and killing

a 1-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl and severely wounding their mother. It also

killed a CMAC driver as he fled the pickup cab where he'd been sleeping.

Deminer Pan Krem was in one of the single men's barracks. When he heard the shots

he pulled on his trousers and dashed outside. "I thought: 'These are bandits.

They just want our money. If they were Khmer Rouge, they'd take our money and our

lives too'."

Fifteen more soldiers attacked the camp's entrance. Pran Krem fled for the bush with

150 CMAC colleagues. Nong Nury stayed put as the attackers fell to looting and beating

those left.

"They took radios, jewelry, money, whatever they could find," he said.

"I stayed quiet, at the end of the line, so they never got to me."

Who were they?

"I don't know. I didn't ask. I didn't want to see their faces."

From the east, three groups of 80-100 soldiers invaded the town's main streets. A

fourth group of 30 swept up from the south.

"They were running and shooting AK-47s and M-16s and B-40 rockets," said

village chief Suk Sarom. "They were looking for me: 'Where is the village chief?'

They told people to bring the chief to them but I ran away.

"If our village militia had put up a fight, things would have just been worse

for us. Two policemen on duty surrendered and the soldiers took their radios. They

shot dead a trader named Janta. Two women and two girls were injured."

In panic, villagers fled toward the Thai border. Lye Dara, a medicine trader, hid.

"The soldiers went from house to house, shouting: 'Any people in here? Come

out or I'll shoot!' They stole baht, gold, jewelry, TVs, radios, bolts of cloth,"

Dara said. "They were dressed in all kinds of uniforms - army, paratrooper,

Khmer Rouge, some just in civilian clothes."

The soldiers set Dara's house on fire but he managed to slip away. Altogether, they

torched 61 thatched-roof houses with cigarette lighters or rocket fire. At 1:30am

they left, to the east and the south.

At the southern edge of the village was a compound housing Halo Trust deminers and

eight community development workers of the NGO Norwegian People's Aid (NPA). NPA

workers said that the soldiers ran past the compound on their way to attack the village.

They overheard an officer ordering the soldiers to leave their compound alone.

After 1:30am, the soldiers came walking back, heavy with loot. "They stole a

bedspread from a washing line," reported Halo Trust deminer Hiv Hout. "What

kind of people are these?"

What indeed? The only hint to their identity were scores of leaflets left behind,

in beautifully scripted Khmer:

To all brothers as military officers, sergeants and soldiers in the Hun Sen regime:

Please stop the fighting of Khmer against Khmer. If you are still stubborn like the

7th Division, we will not tolerate you. Boeung Trakoun is an example of this.

In Sisophon, veteran aid workers said there are two main resistance groups in Banteay

Meanchey province.

To the south is the private army of Lay Vireak, the former commander of the RCAF's

Division 12 who joined Nhek Bun Chhay's resistance three weeks after the July 5-7


"I remember Vireak from the early 1980s," recalled one aid worker. "He

was a young platoon commander under Chea Chhut of the KPNLF (Khmer People's National

Liberation Front). Before that he had supposedly been fighting in one of the early

anti-KR groups, the Blue Bandanas. When I met him he had long matted hair - guys

never cut or washed their hair for magical protection.

"He rose to be Chea Chhut's right-hand man. When he became Division 12 commander

it was his chance to become respectable. He controlled checkpoints, kept his sector

quiet, seemed clean and honest. Since defecting, he's maintained a half-moon defense

zone on the border. His troops are hungry and desperate now, and support themselves

by robbery."

To the north is the territory of Division 7, headquartered in Thmar Pouk, 28km east

of Boeung Trakoun. In December 1997, two regimental commanders, Ry and Bou Sna defected

to the resistance with 100 to 300 soldiers and two APCs.

"They're in a kind of no-man's-land north of Boeung Trakoun," said one

aid official. "They're pretty much left to fend for themselves. It's not difficult

to be successful in robbery. They have run out of money, so you just go out and get


"I don't know who is commanding who," said Nou Sarom, manager of CMAC Demining

Unit 1 in Sisophon. "I don't understand why they attacked CMAC. We're unarmed,

just doing demining. Why don't they attack soldiers, the people with guns?

"I think there were two reasons for the attack. The soldiers stay in the jungle,

they're poor, no food, no money. So one reason is simple robbery. The other is to

frighten people before the election. An RCAF officer in Region 5 told me the resistance

has 56 plans or sites to attack before the elections. Boeung Trakoun was just the


"The prime reason was robbery," agreed a Western aid official. "Boeung

Trakoun is a border crossing with Thai customs and immigration on the other side.

A lot of rice heads to Thailand after the harvest, plus the usual smuggling. People

have money stashed away...

"But there's also a political angle. CMAC is headed by Ieng Mouly of the BLDP

party who came up here after the July coup to calm the troops and keep them from

heading for the jungle. The attack was also a way of making Division 7 lose face.

"There are rumors that Lay Vireak has been in the area. On the other hand, BLDP

MP Lay Khek told me that Lay Vireak is not in favor of a rainy season offensive,

while Nhek Bun Chhay is...

"The dynamic here has always been banditry... Bou Sna and Ry are both illiterate

and the leaflets were in excellent Khmer. I have a feeling that this was more than

a robbery.

"Right now, CMAC has pulled out of Boeung Trakoun, the Thais have closed the

border, the economy of the village has ground to a halt and resettlement will be

hindered too."

More hopeful is an NPA official with 10 years experience here. "We're not abandoning

Boeung Trakoun, but our community development team won't be sleeping there as they

used to," the official said.

"They preferred staying in the village to get to know the people and hold meetings

at night when villagers had finished work. Now many of the rich traders have moved

to Thmar Pouk. Women and children sleep in shelters near the border at night, while

the men remain to guard the village. There's a detachment of army troops there now,

meaning that if there's a second attack there'll be a full scale battle with more

casualties likely than before."

The NPA set up an office in Sisophon in June 1996, working in demining and resettlement

programs in Thmar Pouk and O'Chrouv communes. The O'Chrouv project involves the construction

of a 22km road linking O'Baichoan on the Thai border to the main Route 5 road. This

is in the heart of Lay Vireak's turf, but NPA's work in resettling 10,000 people

on demined land has not been hampered.

"Lay Vireak considers that we are helping 'his' people," said the NPA official.

"We worked well with his Division 12 until July when the whole thing turned

upside down."

The NPA official sees the attack on Boeung Trakoun as a resupply operation by Division

7 defectors led by Ry and Bou Sna.

NPA works with 10 villages, 380 families, strung out along the road between Boeung

Trakoun and Thmar Pouk. They have helped form Village Development Committees and

built wells, ponds, credit schemes, and agricultural extension.

"These villages haven't been affected by the violence," the NPA official

says. "Life goes on as before."

"Half of our families have gone, even before the attack," admits the NPA

official. "We don't know where. Maybe to Thailand. People work as day laborers

there, leaving at 6am, coming back before nightfall. They earn 60 baht a day, with

10 deducted for transport, ten for lunch."

The population here has always been fluid. In 1994, the village was devastated by

a Khmer Rouge attack. The villagers fled to Sisophon where 790 families were housed

in a camp to the south.

A year later, UNHCR and the Cambodian Red Cross resettled them in sites 6km and 10km

northeast of Thmar Pouk. During the height of the April-May dry season, 390 families

headed back to Boeung Trakoun complaining of lack of water. They began demining land

on their own.

The village's prime tourist attraction: a concrete memorial topped by bronze figures

of heroic soldiers and farmers, erected by the KPNLF in 1991. Hundreds of names are

inscribed along each of the memorial's four walls: Cambodian soldiers who fell fighting

for the KPNLF resistance between 1980-1991.

In the village chief's office, stacked against the wall beneath maps and public health

posters, are three B-40 rockets. Suk Sarom commands a force of 30 village militia.

Fifty regular army soldiers are now barracked in the village. The market is open.

People have strung hammocks in the ruins of their houses. Fresh wood planks are piled

for those rebuilding their homes.

The village chief first denied knowing who attacked his village, but presented with

the names of Bou Sna and Ry, he nodded his head and said: "Yes, it was probably

them. I don't know how many will come back the next time. I'm afraid."



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