The Government's defector program has achieved all - if not more - than anyone
hoped, but the sheer numbers have created a new set of problems. Michael
THE dry season has always been fruitful for
governments in Phnom Penh during the now decades-long struggle with the Khmer
Rouge. But this one is providing a particularly rich harvest as hundreds of
rebel defectors pour out of the jungles all over the country to give up the
Since early 1994, almost 7000 guerrilla soldiers and local
militia are reported to have been captured, forced to surrender from military
pressure or have simply walked in to Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF)
outposts to lay down their aging and often times rusty weapons. New arrivals are
coming in daily.
While the numbers are extremely difficult to verify and,
in fact, some of the earliest defectors have since returned to the jungle as a
result of the government's initial mishandling of its defector program,
observers now agree that the carrot and stick approach used to deal with the KR
is producing what appears to be a major victory for the government.
think (the defector program) is working," said Australian Ambassador Tony Kevin
on Jan 6, "and that Khmer Rouge strength is being reduced."
Kevin estimated that only 25 to 50 percent of the defectors to date were
"trained soldiers" with the rest being porters, forced conscripts or villagers
who through no fault of their own had come under KR control.
diplomat said that the program to lure KR out of the jungle was "increasingly
effective" and that "the early problems seem to have been resolved."
added that he had "been impressed for over nine months with how freely the
government was treating the defectors," and that he "hadn't heard of any
coercion on the government side."
Buttressed by a six month amnesty
program due to expire on January 15, the government is using a mixed approach to
entice cadre to cross over. Thousands of leaflets have been dropped from
helicopters over Khmer Rouge controlled villages. Radio appeals are also
broadcast regularly on the government network.
Some of the earliest
defectors have been rushed through reintegration programs and sent back home to
encourage friends and relatives to cross over. According to Major General Tep
Vichet, Deputy chief of the Ministry of Defense's Fifth Bureau in charge of
Psychological Warfare, at the Dei Eth camp south of Phnom Penh, defectors have
been given courses in human rights and have gone through seminars where the
freedoms of a "democratic" society are explained.
They have been
instructed in the basic mechanics of what a market economy means, and even taken
to Buddhist temples where they spend time cleaning pagodas.
very scared because they don't trust us," said Vichet. "They worry about their
own property. But we re-emphasize the commitment not to take their property. We
show them the difference between democracy and communism, that there are markets
and that they can do what they want. We also use polite words."
more than 2000 defectors the government says have now joined the RCAF - after
being given a new uniform and their equivalent rank - many have been re-armed
and sent back to the front lines to assist the military in coaxing former
comrades to join them.
Equally important, according to defectors, is a
recent directive from the KR leadership ordering cadre to engage in what amounts
to a "scorched earth" policy.
"I can't believe (the KR) now because they
tell us to burn houses, kill buffalo and kill villagers," said Moung Seng, 48,
who defected on December 30 in Siem Reap province from KR Div 912 with 40 cadre
under his command. Seng said that three of his relatives had been killed by the
KR and that he would now go back to his district to "bring more friends" over to
the government side.
At a ceremony on January 1 in Angkor Chum district
40km northwest of Siem Reap city, where around 200 cadre presented their weapons
to Fourth Military Region commander Gen Khann Savoern, the story was basically
the same. Looking bedraggled, hungry and scared, most defectors said they wanted
to join the RCAF and go back to their villages. While they said they were tired
of fighting, having a gun in their hands was the best way to protect themselves
and family members from KR retribution.
Fourth Military Region Deputy
Chief of Staff Gen Nhek Bun Chhay told the Post that in recent months over 800
houses had been burned down by the KR in Siem Reap province.
aid official in the province said that due to the disastrous rice harvest this
year the KR was attempting to prevent villagers in areas they control from
selling rice in government-controlled areas further south. Using forced labor
the KR was trying to move rice and timber to their base in Anlong Veng near the
"When the defectors started coming out, those loyal to the
government followed and then the villagers panicked," he said. As many as 40,000
new refugees are now camped along Route 6 just 15 kms west of Siem Reap city.
While the cash-strapped government is obviously elated with the numbers
of defectors, the rapid increase in new arrivals combined with thousands of
recently-displaced refugees has resulted in an enormous problem of how to feed
all these people. With one of the worst rice harvests in almost 20 years the
dilemma could reach crisis proportions.
Officially, defectors are
supposed to receive 1000 riels per day and 700 grams of rice. But cadre
interviewed in the main defector camp in Siem Reap city said on January 5 they
hadn't been fed in two days and were only eating because earlier arrivals were
giving them food from their own allotments.
soldiers complain regularly about not being paid. Should ex-KR receive cash
subsidies while the RCAF rank and file do not see their paychecks, one can
expect the welcome for these new soldiers to be a cool if not frosty
Gen Nhek Bun Chhay said he was taking rice from his own soldiers to
feed the new defectors and that he had no idea when additional rice stocks would
be delivered from Phnom Penh.
As a stop gap measure, the World Food
Program is said to be providing 500 grams of rice a day for one month to all
former KR soldiers and their family members.
The government has asked
for assistance from numerous foreign aid donors but there seem to be few
countries willing to help. Surplus military equipment including cots, mosquito
nets, medicines and tools valued at $370,000 was donated by the American
government to help former KR soldiers. However, a US Embassy spokesperson
lamented that "we're the only ones doing anything."
government has pledged $2 million for demobilized soldiers contingent on
contributions from others. Ambassador Kevin said the donation was "a signal to
other donor countries to help out." But even these funds will only be used for
KR who quit the military entirely, which many seem unwilling to do for the
present given threats from their former leaders.
While it is generally
agreed that hard core KR cadre, with estimates on troop strength ranging from
5,000 to 10,000 will probably never give up peacefully, at the very least the
numbers of recent defectors is an encouraging sign for the government.
a result of these successes, requests from field commanders have been made to
extend the amnesty although a final decision on whether this will happen has yet
to be made in Phnom Penh.
However, the problems of abject poverty in
rural areas will remain a tough nut to crack for decades. And in remote villages
which the KR still have access to there is almost no sign that the millions of
dollars in development aid pouring into the country has had even the slightest
Given this, it's likely that there will be impoverished peasants
willing to listen to false prophets for years to come.