TBENG MEANCHEY - Preah Vihear is Cambodia's only province that borders on both Thailand
and Laos. It is a wildly beautiful province where vast streches of forests remain
untouched, but where the encroachments of illegal foresters continue. It is also
a province where rice farming has been pursued for centuries, but where villages
are tiny and fields are enclosed by forest.
Economic issues dominate the frustrations of the people here. Khmer Rouge are trickling
out of the forest - UNTAC soldiers from Indonesia accepted the surrender of 57 in
Rovieng recently - but inhabitants of Tbeng Meanchey worry more about the after-effects
of the conflict than its actuality.
Mines spread by the Khmer Rouge and the other factions have cut Preah Vihear off
from the rest of Cambodia. Goods can come in by air, but at ten dollars a kilogram,
the prices are high. With no local industry and for the most part isolated from the
rest of Cambodia, the people of Preah Vihear are hoping that peace will bring open
roads and lower prices.
Preah Vihear voted over-whelmingly for the CPP in the United Nation's organized elections.
It has one seat in the new Constituent Assembly. The people hope that as peace comes
to Cambodia the government will work to make life a little easier here.
The current provincial capital is at Tbeng Meanchey, a sleepy town to the north of
the Kulen mountain range. The U.N. provincial headquarters is here, but the U.N.
is on its way out. There are seven srok (districts) in Preah Vihear, but only two
can boast a U.N. military presence. The Indonesian Battalion is taking the place
of the withdrawing Pakistani military, but is assuming a much lower military profile.
Thaa Cho, a retired Agriculture Minister says that there are three problems in Preah
Vihear. "Roads and bridges need to be repaired, water is difficult to get in
the dry season, and hospitals and schools need money. The worst problem is the roads.
It is difficult to get rice from the villages to the town, and goods from Phnom Penh
are very expensive."
Farmers are nearly cut off from their markets. On many roads one can only walk, or
a guide is needed to negotiate the mines. As a consequence, rice is nearly twice
as expensive in the town as in the country, but still 200 riel a kilogram less than
in Phnom Penh.
South of Tbeng Meanchey is the former provincial capital Rovieng. It is a near-idyllic
town of a few thousand, laid out on flat plains under the eye of a mountain range
to the west. Its streets still have the electrical poles of an earlier era when power
flowed and water was easily available. Now electricity is provided from a small number
of generators and from car batteries recharged each day for a price. The main road
from Phnom Penh goes through Kampong Thom, 100 kilometers to the south of Rovieng
and 130 km south of Tbeng Meanchey. The road is mined and unusable. The U.N. moves
around in the province only by air.
In the past, goods flowed in from Thailand, but these have also been cut off by the
fighting. Mines laid by all parties have accomplished what border controls never
could. In one store in Tbeng Meanchey the owner said, "Because of Pol Pot, there
is nothing that comes from Thailand."
Except for a small road that wends its way to Stoeng Treng and the Mekong River,
the province is cut off from the rest of Cambodia. In the rainy season it is possible
to get goods by boat up the river to the intersection of the Mekong and the Sen Rivers
at Stoeng Treng. From there goods must come over-land in trucks that take eight days.
"When it rains the drivers sleep in their trucks," Cho says.
According to Cho, the entire trip from Phnom Penh takes a month, "the Pol Potists
sometimes attack the trucks and steal tobacco or gold." In the dry season the
trip is impossible. The roads are better, but the river is too low.
Vegetables are particularly difficult to get in Tbeng Meanchey, tomatoes and potatoes
available in Phnom Penh for 500 to 1800 riel a kilo cost 2,500 here. A single egg
costs 500 riel versus 180-200. Salt is 2-3,000 a kilo compared to 300 riel in Phnom
Penh. As for "luxury" items, cigarettes and beer are especially expensive.
Oscar cigarettes are 1,300 riel a packet versus 1000 riel, but Marlboro cigarettes
are $8 a carton, the same as Phnom Penh. Beer or soda is a dollar a can in Preah
Vihear, versus fifty cents or less in markets "down south". Angkor beer
is 6,000 riel for a large bottle compared to 2,700 elsewhere.
"If the road to Phnom Penh is opened, prices will be cheaper," says Gung-e
Bonna, a store-keeper in Tbeng Meanchey.
"We want a road from Phnom Penh to Tbeng Meanchey that is as nice as the one
from Phnom Penh to Kompong Som," added Thaa Cho.