Sok Ren’s eyes dart from side to side as he explains in a hushed tone why he’s been detained at military barracks in Preah Vihear province, rarely allowed to leave and under near constant surveillance, since July 31.
While casting his ballot for the Cambodian People’s Party in last month’s election, the soldier went a step further, sneaking into the ballot box an impassioned tale of corruption he says is pushing soldiers posted at the Thai-Cambodian border to the brink.
He inked his finger, he said, then slipped in the note aimed at senior members of the ruling CPP and King Norodom Sihamoni.
“I wrote in my note to the four samdechs to please realise that Battalion 383, under the management of Division 8, has cut the salaries of soldiers by 28,000 riel [$7] per month,” he said. “While volunteer students measured 10 to 15 hectares of land for each of the big bosses with big bellies,” he wrote, “soldiers’ rations such as hammocks and backpacks given to us by Samdech [Prime Minister Hun Sen] were not enough for us.”
In response to the note, Ren’s military superiors tried to flush out the squealer in their ranks. It didn’t take long before they settled on Ren and one other outspoken soldier. When he heard the other man had been questioned, Ren voluntarily confessed.
“I did it, so I have to take responsibility. My intention was to let the public know … so they will not let such things happen because the soldiers who come here are risking life and limb to protect their country.”
Ren has been a soldier on and off for decades. He was captured by Khmer Rouge soldiers around 1996 and was forced to fight for them before integration let him flip to the other side. In 1998, he re-enlisted as a government soldier and has been posted at Preah Vihear temple at the border ever since.
When he dropped in the note, Ren said, he was not intending to cause trouble. He just hoped to see reform in a unit that had grown grossly corrupt.
After the confession, Ren was ordered to stay in the barracks. He is not allowed to leave the grounds without permission; he is not allowed to interact with outsiders. In order to speak to a reporter this week, Ren lied and begged permission to check a nearby piece of land he farms. Within minutes, a commander was phoning him, angrily inquiring after his whereabouts and ordering him back.
But the punishment, which remains ongoing, appears to have been worth it. Ren said that the battalion commander has since returned 30,000 riel to each soldier.
“I don’t regret what I did,” he said. “Because of my words, I helped hundreds of troops.”
Though troops could be seen this week coming and going as they pleased without seeking permission, a commander insisted Monday that Ren’s punishment was no more than the ordinary state of affairs.
“This is an RCAF order [for everyone]. Even I myself have been told to stay in the barracks for more than a year now and have not gone out because I’m busy protecting the country,” said Srey Deuk, commander of Intervention Division 3.
“If everyone goes home, who will protect the nation?”
At least once a year, during harvest season, soldiers are allowed a 10-day leave. But Ren’s detention has left his status unclear.
Early this month, Nuon Chantha, 48, twice travelled from Oddar Meanchey province’s Anlong Veng district to her husband’s battalion to beg the Battalion 8 commander for mercy.
“I went to meet his big boss, Yem Pem, at the battalion located in Preah Vihear on August 7 and 9, but he would not allow my husband to leave because he committed a giant mistake … so he must stay at least three or four months,” she said.
“I pleaded, I said: ‘If he stays here, next year, I will be starving. Please, uncle, pity me.’ But he remained firm. So I said goodbye and returned home.”
Speaking at the couple’s small Anlong Veng house, Chantha said Ren had been due to harvest his one-hectare Preah Vihear farmland within the coming weeks. If he continues to be forbidden from farming, they’ll go hungry.
“Last year, my family couldn’t reap, because they asked him to stay in training longer, meaning we had insufficient food. This year, it is high time for harvest, but he is punished and not allowed to go anywhere for at least three months. So again, we don’t have anything to eat.”
Ren’s current troubles are coming in a particularly harrowing year for his family. Their daughter is due to give birth any day now, while Chantha suffers a chronic illness and is herself unable to work.
Losing 28,000 riel a month, then, was hardly an option for Ren, whose salary hovers around $150.
“Please inform Samdech and ask for intervention into corruption among [RCAF] commanders who cut our salaries by 28,000 riel a month unreasonably,” his ballot box letter reads.
For the good of the nation
Both Chantha and Ren insist the letter was not meant maliciously and are quick to point out he, in fact, voted for the ruling party.
“My husband did it because he was afraid of the soldiers being angry about the pay cut and thus would vote for the other parties,” Chantha said. “He made a mistake.”
Battalion 8 commander Pen declined to comment, while Intervention Division 3 commander Deuk insisted Ren’s complaint was a non-issue.
“The military does not know about this corruption case, and we have not given any orders to dock soldiers’ pay. The issue was at a lower battalion and has already been resolved and the money given back,” he said.
Shortly after the letter surfaced, Ren said, commander of Brigade 8’s Battalion 383, Ly Luon, arrived at the barracks and gave 30,000 riel to each soldier.
Anti-Corruption Unit president Om Yentieng refused to comment saying: “I cannot answer the Post’s questions.”
Regardless of the corruption issue, there is little question the commanders have overstepped their bounds, rights groups said.
“In truth, each soldier who’s not satisfied with their boss for committing corruption has the right to take action to solve their problem,” Adhoc senior investigator Chan Soveth said. “If each soldier who speaks out is detained or threatened … it seriously undermines their rights.”