THE soldiers, their starched uniforms hiding the towels wrapped round their
knees, were all set to go down on bended knee for the Royal
The brass band stood at one side, battered instruments at
attention, and the pop band at the other. The crab, shrimp and beer were tucked
out of sight.
The enlistment ceremony for the Royal Cambodian Armed
Force's latest recruits was ready to begin.
The 306 soldiers - from a
total of 425 but there weren't enough trucks to take them all to the ceremony -
stood ill at ease, eyes glancing around, taking it all in.
They had been
promised a party, but first they had to go through the serious stuff.
Assembled in rows in their new RCAF uniforms under a cloudless sky in seaside
Kep, it must have seemed a lifetime away from their former home of Phnom Vour.
In a few minutes, after their transition from Khmer Rouge guerrillas to
government soldiers would be complete, it would be even more so.
obvious these were experienced fighters. At their head stood three former Khmer
Rouge officers, one minus his right arm. Many of those lined up behind bore
scars on their arms or faces; one man had only a hollow where an eye should have
Ranging from the old to the young, every face gave a glimpse of
their feelings. The wary, darting eyes and furrowed brows of some stood side by
side with the jovial smiles and jokes of others.
All stood to attention
- one who didn't received a sharp jab in the back - as the invited dignitaries
arrived to the trumpeting of the brass band. The ceremony began.
soldiers, on command, dropped onto their right knees to be formally sworn into
Repeating a Royal army commander's shouted pledge of allegiance, some
wholeheartedly bellowed the words while others barely moved their
Rising to their feet, many reached down to adjust the towels they
had earlier wrapped round one knee to cushion them while kneeling.
governor of Kep, Chea Rithichhut, and senior RCAF chiefs stepped forward to pin
army insignia to their bare uniforms.
First to receive them was former
Khmer Rouge commander Chhouk Rin - who had led most of the guerrillas behind him
to defect from Phnom Vour - and two other former rebel officers.
Lieutenant colonels' epaulets were pinned on all three. Hands were
shaken, smiles were exchanged and $10 cash was later handed to each of
Then it was the turn of the lesser ranks to receive badges, with
one, two or three stripes.
The head of a local monastery moved through
the ranks, sprinkling water with a lotus leaf from a silver bowl to bless them.
That completed, newly-appointed Lt Col Rin - undoubtedly the star of the
occassion - stepped forward to speak.
Reading from typewritten notes, he
wholeheartedly endorsed the King, the Royal government and local military
personnel who were "completely different from the propoganda and fraud of the
obstinate Khmer Rouge leaders".
He expressed the former guerrillas'
"profound thanks" for the First and Second Prime Ministers' granting of amnesty
Urging other KR to defect as well, he pledged that "returning
to live with the national community, as we did, will bring glorious future
happiness and safety".
To stay in the jungle, he said, was to "live
miserably with no freedom, awaiting only death."
The message delivered,
the ceremony was complete. The fun could begin.
Tables and chairs were
unstacked. Bottle after bottle of beer and plate after plate of food - cooked
crabs, shrimps and rice - were attacked with gusto.
After the food came
the dancing. A live band in one corner burst into life and dozens of defectors
took to the concrete dance floor.
RCAF commanders and former guerrillas,
just months ago bitter enemies, strolled around swapping drinks and jokes.
The defectors - from a KR base whose name is synomous with the killing
of foreign hostages - pronounced themselves "very happy" to the few foreigners
present, insisting on shaking hands and posing for photographs.
appeared just ordinary people. For an hour or two, any thoughts of their pasts -
or their futures - were put aside.
Tomorrow the war would continue, with
them having changed sides, but for tonight at least they would go to sleep