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1996 - The year of precarious peace

1996 - The year of precarious peace

1996 was the year that the extraordinary became reality. After more than four decades

in Cambodian political, military and social life, the Khmer Rouge neared extinction.

Ieng Sary jumped ship. Several key rebel commanders, and thousands of their troops

and families, abandoned their former cause. Pailin and Phnom Malai, and Samlot were

thrown open to outside eyes.

The men in the Mao caps, AK-47s over their shoulders, lost their mystique. They turned

out to be ordinary people. They wanted to make money, to own property, to watch television,

to dance and to sing. Perhaps the year's most bizarre sight was scantily-clad singers

from Battambang performing before legions of roaring KR and Royal army soldiers in

downtown Pailin.

While historians may argue that the KR split was inevitable - the seeds of it sprouting

for years - the fact remains that a year ago it would have seemed inconceivable:

the bulk of the KR walking away from Pol Pot? The Royal army entering Pailin and

Malai without a bullet fired? Hun Sen venturing to Pailin? All in four months?

For an instant, it seemed that the light at the end of the Cambodia's tunnel was

blazing; peace, true peace, was in sight for the first time in decades. For stability,

for development, for prosperity, for the lives of so many Khmers, the potential was

immense.

But, as always, it wasn't so simple. Even as a great stride was being made toward

peace, new dangers loomed around the corner.

For 1996 was also the year that the rift within the government coalition became a

gulf. At times, the leaders could barely talk to each other. By year's end, a political

war of words - complete with numerous threats - had taken on military overtones.

Arm-flexing became the norm; shots, thankfully precious few, were fired between supposedly-united

people.

Just how much the Khmer Rouge split had to do with the widening fissure in the government,

and vice-versa, remains unsatisfactorily explained. But at the very least, despite

hollow denials, both ruling political parties sought political and military gain

from the breakaway Khmer Rouge. At times, it seemed like a macabre race of recruitment.

Talk of the "resistance" - the former factions, including the Khmer Rouge,

that fought Phnom Penh from the Thai border in the 1980s - was revived at the highest

levels of the government. The Khmer Rouge may never be the same again, but - as evidenced

by both Prime Ministers claiming support from the breakaway rebels - they remain

a potent force. The integration of the defectors remains murky. Integration with

whom? With a government, or a faction?

In the end, Ieng Sary got his amnesty. To some, it was a dishonor to the Khmer Rouge's

victims; to others, a necessary concession for the sake of peace. Cambodians wrestled

with the conflicting demands of truth, reconciliation, peace and justice.

Pol Pot was reported dead, but few were convinced. Regardless, most seem to accept

he is old and ill, which is welcome news.

At year's end, it is evident that the turmoil within the Khmer Rouge - added to an

already potent political brew in Phnom Penh - came with its own perils. The next

year, as the prospect of commune and national elections grows closer, will be a critical

test of the loyalties of various factions to Cambodia itself.

For the thousands of lower-ranked soldiers and their families on both sides, for

the innocent, the maimed and the grieved, for the IDPs of Battambang and elsewhere,

their view is plain: they want peace.

The voices of people like Sek Ray - a 58-year-old woman of Pailin who could only

utter "Sabai" (happy) in between sobs as she watched Hun Sen's arrival

in Pailin - are unequivocal and non-political. Voices of people like Mom Samoeun,

a mother of two in Phnom Malai: "I have no idea who is our enemy and who is

not. The only thing I know is to run when there's shelling." Or guerrilla Nget

Saroeun, who after 24 years serving the cause of Pol Pot, declared: "The longer

this war goes on, the more misery and disaster face the Cambodian people. I hate

this war."

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