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Bridging the gray zones in the northwest

Bridging the gray zones in the northwest

SISOPHON - While negotiations between warring parties move along at an uncertain

pace in the northwest, one Cambodian NGO is making its own efforts to reach out to

the people.

Building infrastructure out in the "gray" areas of Banteay Meanchey province

- those that are officially controlled by the government but are too close to Khmer

Rouge territory for comfort - the Sisophon based NGO Acnakot Khmer has spent the

last two and a half years teaching Cambodians how to improve their own lot.

Whether Acnakot Khmer is building schools or latrines, its priority is to make sure

the villagers are learning construction skills - they build the projects themselves

and receive the long-term benefits after completion, said Acnakot Khmer Director

Sam-Oeun Hoeun, better known as Sadim.

"The important thing is that the work is labor-based, not machinery-based,"

he said. "We share the technical knowledge with the people, and the profit flows

back to the people. They learn how to do the projects themselves, like irrigation

work and building culverts, bridges and roads."

Their efforts have been met with praise by provincial officials and are even appreciated

by Khmer Rouge commanders in the area.

One of Acnakot Khmer's current projects is a system of four concrete bridges out

in the rice paddies near Thmar Pouk, where Khmer Rouge division 519 has been negotiating

with government forces.

Sadim said he had a local businessman ask a KR commander if they intended to destroy

his work after it was completed.

"Sometimes the Khmer Rouge come here - it is a dangerous place," Sadim

said. "[But] the Khmer Rouge said they don't mind because they would probably

need the bridges themselves in the wet season."

"We build infrastructure work and all the people join us because they know this

work is important in the rural areas," NGO worker San Sambath said. "They

lack the basic infrastructure for living. They are very poor."

The labor based approach has another positive side effect appreciated by Acnakot

Khmer's donors - it keeps costs down.

The bridge project, for example, will have a final price tag of about $8,400.

The project methodology has attracted international donors such as Community Aid

Abroad, the International Labor Organization, USAID and the Danish-Cambodian Consortium.

The World Food Program also provides rice supplies for the construction workers.

The dimensions of the bridge project also hint at Acnakot Khmer's grassroots philosophy.

The structures are not wide enough for an armored personnel carrier or a logging

truck to safely cross, but they are perfect for bringing goods to the market in Thmar

Pouk everyday.

Acnakot Khmer has successfully steered clear of helping big business and military

interests, but their willingness to work in areas that have been historically controlled

by bandits and warlords involves a substantial risk for Sadim and his men.

Although they have never been threatened while working, a Khmer Rouge soldier opened

fire on Sadim while he was driving to a project site near Nimith in 1994. One bullet

struck the driver's door.

But Acnakot Khmer Assistant Manager Ouk Sakhan said he does not go into the countryside

everyday fearing the Khmer Rouge. The state of lawlessness in parts of Banteay Meanchey

combined with under-paid government soldiers is an equally dangerous aspect of his

job.

"We don't think about Khmer Rouge, but it is the bandits," he said. "Sometimes

they are Khmer Rouge, sometimes they are the government soldiers. They get drunk

and point their weapons around. But we have never had an incident."

Ouk Sakhan said he credits the nature of the Acnakot Khmer for avoiding violence.

He said if they did not work on projects that benefited the people, their safety

would soon be compromised.

"People are counting on us to do these projects, so they protect us and work

with us," he said. "If bad people want to come and threaten us, they can

because it is easy to escape into the forest and blame someone else."

Even a peace agreement between the Khmer Rouge and the government will not change

the way business is conducted in Cambodia's rugged northwest, but if Ieng Sary does

join forces with the government, chances are he will need Acnakot Khmer's help to

bring know-how to villages isolated from the rest of Cambodian society for more than

a decade.

In the meantime, a sign appeared at one of the NGO's bridge sites last week, in an

apparent message to both government and KR. It read, in perfect English: "I

love you. Do you love me?"

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