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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Trains and Cows, Guns and Candy

Trains and Cows, Guns and Candy

Bandits killed twelve people, including a 12-year-old girl, and wounded 40 in a train

attack on Aug. 3 near the small Chang Aeu crossroads in Kampot province.

In the last six weeks, the area southeast of the market has provided new volunteers

to the Khmer Rouge (KR). Whether the KR are bandits, heroes, or villans depends on

where you are at the time. The same can be said of the SOC police and CPAF. Allegiances

in this area are frequently based more on who can provide protection than political


The railway track lies between Phnum Vol to the north, a hill considered a KR stronghold,

and a cultivated coconut grove along Route 16 one kilometer east of the meeting place.

Running between the Sihanoukville port and Phnom Penh, the train carries both goods

and passengers. During the attack grenades were tossed into the train's open windows.

"It was not a pretty sight," said a U.N. observer who arrived afterwards.

The bandits, identified later by passengers as Khmer Rouge, made survivors ferry

motorcycles and stolen goods towards the northern hill.

The week before the grove's straight rows of wind-bent coconut trunks and low brush

sheltered the KR after an unsuccessful attack at that same spot. Minutes after that

attempt the A3 unit of SOC police nervously lined route 16 at 50 yard intervals.

Armed with grenade launchers, AK47s and machine guns, they wanted to prevent the

KR from retreating to villages south of the highway. Local SOC police were unable

to explain how the A3, a special police unit formed in the mid-eighties and trained

in intelligence techniques by the East Germans and Vietnamese, just happened to be


While the A3 were edgy during that first attack, the market stalls and restaurant

at the crossroads market of Chang Aeu, a kilometer away, had operated as usual. Fish

and small packets of soap powder were sold, kids threw flipflops, crowded card games

continued. U.N. sources said that before the election an "unspoken agreement"

had existed in the area between the SOC police, CPAF and the KR. The KR camped in

the hills overlooking the sea would visit their villages on the flat southern side

of Route 16 at dusk and return at dawn. Since the election, however, SOC police and

CPAF have concentrated on keeping the KR away from the villages and food supplies.

"Everything fell to peices during the election when a CPAF soldier put out a

mine, then stepped on it himself and blamed the KR," one observer said. Locals

now talk of harassment and intimidation of FUNCINPEC voters by SOC police and CPAF


The NADK north of Route 16 are characterized by U.N. observers as more organized

than the KR south of the highway. "North of the highway they are part of the

NADK structure. The DK to the south is more informal," said a U.N. official.

In recent weeks, however, intimidation and banditry have provoked at least 17 men

from the villages south of Route 16 into volunteering for the KR.

The villages south of Route 16 have had little contact with UNTAC. Several are inaccessible

to four-wheeled vehicles. Only motorcycles can navigate the narrow paths running

along the paddies' walls, and in the rainy season even motorcycles have trouble.

Civpol has not visited these remote villages, but the UNMOs at Kep toured the area

the day after the unsuccessful first train attack. "I didn't tell you I had

a submariner's licence, did I?" one grunted as we dragged the Yamaha 125 out

of a 15 meter wide "puddle."

At a wat not far off Route 16 a dozen young monks visiting from Battambang came over

to practice English, then switched to Khmer. Scaffolding had been erected inside

the wat and wall murals were being restored in bright oranges and blues. After performing

the traditional male ritual of admiring the motorcycles, the monks complained of

banditry. Some of the bandits were dressed in parts of CPAF uniforms, they said.

Did the monks have any trouble with the KR, one of the UNMOs asked.

"We like the KR. Three KR sleep here at night. They come to protect us from

the bandits," one monk told the UNMOs. "Sometimes the KR pray with us."

In a small village further on an older man sat us down in his house and offered us

coconuts. No one he knew had joined the KR he said, and we made polite talk about

how much rain has fallen. Other villages came to watch and children hung about munching

on hard candies the UNMOs produced from their uniform pockets. Several other adults

joined the discussion, especially an older woman who sat with her back against the

wall. She motioned with her hand to the speaker and interrupted him several times,

which he tried to ignore.

"The people have told me to tell you the truth," the man said finally,

changing his tone. Since the election they had been threatened by the CPAF because

they had voted for FUNCINPEC. His son had joined three weeks earlier, and he himself

had been a member of the KR at one point. The KR did not have uniforms or a weapon

to give the son. The son already had a gun.

"Do the KR come to you?"

"We go to them."

A village five or six kilometres away had no chief. "CPAF came to the village

and took his cows because they thought the village belonged to the KR. He knew my

brother and husband were in the KR so he took my cows and left," said a tall

woman, six of whose top teeth had been capped in gold. She confirmed the KR, despite

SOC denials, had been in the neighborhood for several days.

When we asked the man who seemed to be in charge if we could talk with the KR leader,

he conferred with three young men in sampots who had quitely slipped in at the crowd's

edge. The young men didn't want to set off to find the KR.

"Instead he has sent the two girls to find The Spy," our interpreter intoned

seriously, as two seven or eight year olds ran off behind the houses. Waiting for

The Spy, we talked about the village school, closed for months because teachers thought

the village too remote, and the lack of medical care. Anti-malaria medicine was the

first request. To reach Kampot hospital meant crossing over 20 informal checkpoints

set up by the unpaid SOC police or CPAF soldiers at an average cost of 400 riels

per checkpoint, money the villagers didn't have.

"We see the Red Cross truck on the road but they never come to us," complained

the gold toothed woman. The explanation that the Red Cross truck could not get through

the paddies didn't change the fact that the village had not received any of the help

they knew the U.N. and NGOs could provide.

"The Spy is coming!" the interpreter shouted suddenly and pointed toward

coconut trees leading to the paddies.

The Spy's advance guard appeared first. Through the trees a dozen children ran and

laughed on the path around The Spy, a grey-haired late middle aged woman with an

unhappy three-year-old balanced on one hip.

The Spy squated beside us and settled the child on her knee. She confirmed the local

KR leader was about 500 yards away. He and a dozen KR had been in the village for

the past several days. Today, however, was not a good meeting day.

"When the KR are here we do not have trouble with bandits," the Spy said.

As she talked she unwrapped a piece of hard candy an UNMO handed her, trying to distract

her crying child. The Spy was willing to talk but the child wasn't, ignoring the

candy and curling his arms around his mother's neck, burying his face in her shoulder.

When asked how many men had joined the KR since the election, the adults conferred

before the Spy answered: 16.

We could come back another day to meet the KR leader, The Spy said.

Ten yards behind The Spy, the sampot trio performed the ritual Examination of the


Would you like to drive an oxcart, one of the sampot wearers asked an UNMO, in what

to a cynic might seem a gambit aimed at a Yamaha test drive. As the UNMO raced the

ox, like Charlton Heston in Ben Hur, towards the trees from which The Spy had come,

one couldn't help think of the KR scrambling to get away from an uncontrolled U.N.

oxcart in 5th gear.

"You must leave soon, by three," The Spy told the interpreter. The police

and soldiers along Ruote 16 might give us trouble if we left later. She also feared

that the village would receive an unfriendly CPAF visit because the villagers had

talked, and probably complained, to UNTAC.

Half an hour later we bounced across the gravel and potholes of Route 16.

The UNTAC motorcycles were barely slowed at checkpoints while local people were stopped.

One soldier sat in the shade by the road next to his AK and smilingly waved us away

with a bright red flower, looking more like a stoned hippy than an extortionist.

The next morning we visited the CPAF in Kep. A dozen soldiers were living in Prince

Sihanouk's father's deserted, bullet-pocked villa, its beaux-arts cornicing still

gracing the facade. Branches for cooking collected from the woods around the house

were stored in a gutted upstairs bathroom. Hammocks hung in each of the open, windowless

rooms and washing lines stretched across the wide veranda. According to U.N. sources

the CPAF probably hadn't been paid in three months, but this was in the week before

Operation Paymaster began. When the CPAF is paid the salary of a foot soldier is

only 38,300 riel a month, slightly more than a U.N. staffer earns in MSA every two

hours. The soldiers weren't much better off than the villagers.

To us the CPAF were courteous and friendly, communicating in a fractured melange

of French, English and Khmer, setting up another soldier to look like a fool in a

photograph, and like the villagers asking for anti-malaria medicine. To The Spy those

soldiers, or ones similar, were bandits and terrorists who gave the sons in her village

little choice but to join the Khmer Rouge. To the mother of the murdered 12 year

old on the Sihanoukville train the Spy's KR must be the cruelest, most heartless

group on the planet. Unfortunately, those SOC police and CPAF soldiers who have not

accepted the rights of the people in their areas to make their own political choices

are providing the best recruiters the KR could ever have.



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