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Cambodia's borders: real fences or just for show?

Cambodia's borders: real fences or just for show?

They are everywhere. A Cambodian buys land and the first objective is to fence it.

You cannot see in; the owner cannot see out.

Why this preoccupation to build the fence first? Is it to define the border of the

property or stake a claim on it? Perhaps to keep thieves out, to protect the trees

and plants and resources that lie within?

Or are they just for show?

Cambodia has a land and sea border that stretches more than 2,000km.

Except at crossing points, there is very little in the way of a fence, more just

a series of irregularly-spaced cement boundary pillars. Apart from defining where

Cambodia starts or stops, this is also a border just for show.

The Interior Ministry has border police but they are toothless and lack resources

like fast patrol craft to control the coastline, proper border surveillance equipment

and adequate communications.

Along most of the land border they are not deployed in their protective role, supposedly

because of security threats.

So who does control the border? That really depends on what part of it you're standing,

at what time of the day or night, and in what season.

In some areas it's clear. No one disputes who controls the Cambodian side of the

border in the DNUM area. Those in Pailin continue to talk of Hun Sen's promise during

his first visit in late 1996 of a five-year grace period for the DNUM.

It now appears that they will retain control in their area for a considerable time

to come.

Thailand, mainly through their local military, control goods moving in and out of

the DNUM.

In Phnom Malai in August 1996, during early negotiations to bring the Khmer Rouge

of that area over to the government, Thai consumer goods were everywhere - food,

soft drinks, medical supplies, televisions, vehicles, the lot.

Officially at that time Thailand had closed its border crossing points, but in response

to the question "What effect is the closure having on the local population?"

a Khmer Rouge commander, with just the hint of a smile, replied: "Yes, it is

a problem, the border is closed, by day."

RCAF divisions and provincial military stationed permanently in other border areas

exercise similar control over local trade. To them, control of the border is an important

source of funding.

Depending on the location, owning a slice of the border is lucrative. In some cases,

such as in the recent skirmishes of Samlot and O'Baichoan, border issues have been

central in causing these conflicts.

The issue is money, not the politics of resistance versus government.

At illegal border crossing points you can pay less tax to transit your goods than

at government-controlled crossings.

"Aren't you pleased that both governments [Thai and Cambodian] have agreed to

officially recognize the border crossing in your area?" one RCAF general was


"Pleased? No! We don't want the government in here interfering, it will mean

a loss of revenue for us."

So the Cambodian trucks with their timber and rice roll up to the border. The goods

are loaded into Thai-plated trucks that crawl back into Thailand.

At another crossing you may see Cambodian vehicles returning from local Thai border

markets where they've picked up soft drinks, motos, fuel and televisions.

Along parts of the border with Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, opposite Anlong Veng,

Koh Kong and along the coast, similar scenes under local warlord control are played

out daily - or nightly.

Government law is ignored, duty and taxes in most cases avoided and revenues remain

at a token level of what they could be. Yes, it does take two to tango, and yes,

there are two sides to every border.

The Timber Story
"Look, it's like this," the RCAF general said, waving some documents

in our direction. "The prime ministers have sent directives telling us that

we're not allowed to cut any more timber up here. It's all right for them, they've

made their money from the leases. But what about us? I'm the executive officer and

it's my job to generate the money to keep the boss and our soldiers happy. As we

advance toward the Khmer Rouge, the timber cutters follow us. Without timber how

would we survive?

"Ours is not a ghost-soldier unit!"

There seems little point in organizations like Global Witness continually throwing

"irrefutable evidence" of illegal logging in the face of the government

when that government is incapable or unwilling to exercise power over the military

and others who control the borders.

Seeds of the Issue
Military pay scales range from $12 to $45, soldier to general, plus an allowance

of 22kg of rice. What family, in or out of Phnom Penh could live on a soldiers wages?

Pay is routinely one to two months late.

Like most other public servants in the country, the military are not paid enough

to live on. The salary for a general is a joke, particularly when secretaries of

state earn more than one thousand dollars a month.

The government must know that its military needs to generate its own funds to survive.

On the border the money is made from timber and the control of border crossing points.

In units that are not so lucky it may be that the pay of ghost soldiers (through

inflated strength statements) provides that funding.

To supplement incomes many wives work, running food stalls and other small businesses,

some following their husbands to the front to do the same. In Phnom Penh numbers

of soldiers hold two jobs. They may go to their military job only of a morning, but

as a minimum you will certainly see them there on pay day. At other times you may

find yourself a passenger on their moto, or perhaps at night they're guarding your

house. A number of officers now have their own businesses.

In the military, most are forced to try to generate extra funds in order to survive.

Without such funds they have to rely on handouts from the boss. Apart from ghost

soldiers, there is ghost rice, ghost fuel and even ghost medical supplies. "I

sign for 1,000 litres of fuel," an officer said, "but we only receive 900.

That's normal." As in many other organisations the 10% rule applies.

Back on the border the fence is still down and the resources continue to flow out.

As resources dwindle, money is certainly being made by the Cambodian military and

many others. Depending on rank and position in many cases they may make far more

money than they need, but the real profits are going elsewhere.

Who profits the most?
A busy night on a northern road sees more trucks and pick-ups loaded to the gunnels

with perfectly cut high quality pieces of timber that the Cambodians say are being

sold to the Thais as railway sleepers. Thousands upon thousands of these teak and

other quality timber "sleepers" have been "exported". Surely

the Thais have enough "sleepers" now to build a railway from Bangkok to


They must be perfectly cut with no splits or knots otherwise the Thais reject them,

the officer said. "The price? We get 260 baht for each one."

It is believed that in Thailand many of these "sleepers" are cross cut

to make high-quality polished parquetry flooring. You can probably walk on them in

some of the best hotels and houses in Thailand. Maybe they're laid in the Riverside

Plaza in Bangkok. Perhaps there, you can walk across high quality Cambodian timber

as you make you way to the specialist shops that trade in Angkorian artifacts.

The King has recently joined the chorus of those from inside and outside the country

warning of the devastating effects that the uncontrolled stripping of the timber

resource will have on the country and its people. Dire warnings or not it appears,

at least for the moment, that the government lacks the power or perhaps the will,

to act.

The latest plan proposed by the Agriculture Ministry suggests stationing 500 soldiers

with assault rifles around the country to support anti-illegal logging task forces.

Surely that would be tantamount to throwing fat into the fire?

Can Cambodia's border be changed to something that is more than just for show, or

will it be like one of those long high, but now greying fences that you drive past

for months, until the day your curiosity gets the better of you?

You go to the unlocked gate, drag it open, look inside, and there's nothing.

- (Colonel David Mead (Retired) was the Australian Defense Attaché

in Cambodia from November 94 until August 97.)


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