Land of the Rich Red Gem
From no-man's land to capitalist haven, things may be turning sour in Pailin
PAILIN - As dawn breaks through the mountain mist,
"The Pailin Wind" by Ros Serey Sothea, a famous
female vocalist from Lon Nol times, plays over Pailin FM
"Live with worries, the sad [things] and funny
[things] are always changing...
The Pailin wind, dreams on Phnom Yart...
The moans of previous life, the capitalist of the forests
Killed and destroyed the love from [my] dear,
I am so nostalgic... I used to be with [you] and have
never been away.
The wind flows blowing over the grave, love of the
But I am still honest even the world is narrow, if I was
born in a hundred more lives ,
[I] always wish to be with you."
San Vet, who has lived here since 1979, says:
"A-Pot's [contemptible Pol Pot] songs are not in my
heart. They did not have any words of 'love'. It always
says 'attack yuon, attack yuon'... Every word in the song
abuses yuon," she laughed. "If not, it would
say 'cut off the roads, destroy the bridges, fight the
enemy at the front and behind, cut the enemy into
Vet's history is harrowing. Like so many natives of
Kratie province, Vet's family, by quirks of fate,
geography and timing, were among the "old" or
original Khmer Rouge people. Life was a bit easier for
them, or so the history books tell us, but Vet doesn't
see it quite like that.
She lost all her family by the time she was 12. She fled
in the "long trek" to Pailin, then to Thailand
in front of invading Vietnamese in 1979. Herhusband was
killed trying to help recapture Pailin from the
Vietnamese in 1984.
But her melancholy deepens when talking about the songs.
She remembers that all songs - except bloody
revolutionary ones - were banned until Pailin defected en
masse to the government two years ago this month.
Pailin's music should have been merrier in the last
couple of years. And in the beginning it probably was.
But it seems things are not quite so tuneful now in the
Land of the Rich Red Gem.
Ee Chhean - the governor - has run Pailin since brokering
the defection of his turf and Sok Pheap's Phnom Malai
from Pol Pot and Ta Mok to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen
in August 1996, having negotiated initially with
Funcinpec general Nhek Bun Chhay.
His former soldiers praise Chhean for this. When Ta Mok
promised them nothing but continued war and Maoist
rigidity at a "re-education" meeting in Pailin
in early 1996, Chhean asked Mok to leave.
Former soldier Soeur Yin, 44, laughs that when Ta Mok
left Pailin and crossed a river "he turned his head
back and abused Ee Chhean 'A [contemptible] Chhean! A
traitor! You will see! When I arrive [at Anlong Veng] I
will bring my forces to destroy you, you will see."
Mok's forces did return, briefly, but were talked out of
attacking, Yin says.
But the split left Pailin in no-man's land: "If we
went back Ta Mok would kill us and if we went forward
we'd meet Hun Sen soldiers," Yin says.
It was Chhean who negotiated a truce with the Royal
government, cementing it eventually with Hun Sen. Yin
says Pol Pot's former lieutenant Ieng Sary "worked
hard" explaining to the people and the soldiers the
reason for joining the government.
Chhean and Pheap pushed before them Sary as a figurehead
- thesubordinate player in the "Pol Pot-Ieng Sary
clique" that was vilified throughout the world for
its part in the 1975-79 regime. In what is still
incredible to many people today, Sary was pardoned for
his sins in the name of political expediency.
Pailin was another stick of dynamite in the bomb that
would eventually blow the elected CPP-Funcinpec alliance
apart in July, 1997, but the town seemed barely affected
Instead, it geared up for an unprecedented change as a
semi-autonomous free market, free from both the
governance of others and fear of attack.
The simple folk came in droves, thinking Pailin would be
some kind of El Dorado. Gems littered the streets. There
was no crime here - one could leave one's motorbike
unlocked and unattended and it would still be there in
the morning. There was no prostitution and no gambling,
apparently. The politics, intrigue and graft of
Battambang and Phnom Penh seemed light- years away; so
did the fighting of O'Smach, Samlot, Anlong Veng and
But things are turning a bit sour as Pailin celebrates
its second birthday as a capitalist haven.
One gem prospector, from Kampong Thom, was embarrassed
about his poverty. He'd earned 900 baht ($22) in just one
year. Before working his new claim he used to scavenge
and steal pay-dirt from commercial Thai prospectors and
was chased away many times by local police, but never
"Oh when will I have good luck like Chao Chet [a
famous Khmer of the 60's who struck it lucky in Pailin]?
I have taken one thousand sacks [of dirt] already and I
still have bad luck," he says.
Yin, the former soldier, says: "I spent almost my
whole life fighting against the [Lon Nol and Hun Sen]
government for the nation and people. But now the KR
soldiers in Pailin have no means [of income].
"I am wondering," Yin says, "[the KR
leadership] praised and respected us in the time of war.
[But] now when [Pailin and Phnom Penh] are together they
forget us." Whatever money Yin gets he spends on
food for his family or foranti-malaria medicine -
whichever need is greater.
"I feel sorry. I struggled for the life of the
nation but at last my life is meaningless. That is the
life of the [unskilled] soldier," he says.
Yin has three children. He is a gem prospector too, and
like all his comrades he carries the scars of wounds from
his enemies - American, Khmer and Vietnamese.
"Now I am not a soldier any more," Yin says.
" Before I carried a gun and struggled for the life
of the nation, but now I put down the gun and hold the
axe and struggle for the future of my children."
There are about 15 brothels in this small city and a new
casino. Heavily made-up taxi-girls - including
prostitutes from Vietnam, which was for a long time the
hated foe - sit in front of shops, waving at car
passengers and even local pedestrians for a
"massage". The city, except the most popular
brothels and karaoke bars, is under a permanent midnight
"I'm not a conservative," says one old KR
soldier who has been here since 1979. "But there is
too much freedom [here now]."
Some other former KR soldiers say their lives in Pailin
are much better than the lives of their counterparts in
the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), because former
KR soldiers have been provided with titles to land.
"Compared with Hun Sen soldiers, we are better off.
We have big pieces of land and we live in a rich area,
now that war is finished," said Chhay Kie, a former
Crime in and around Pailin is still well controlled.
Route 10 through the jungle from Battambang is open 24
hours a day. "This road is the safest in our
country," says a taxi-driver.
Last month, a driver reported to military police that
four bandits were on the road. The police searched for
and found the men, executed two of them while the other
two escaped. There have been no more security problems on
The people talk openly about what jewels they find and
what money they may make. Gems are freely traded on the
streets. There is no thought of being circumspect for
fear of robbery.
However, some are still worried for the future. The
"free market freedoms" may bring with them
thieves and disorder in the town, various people told the
But it's the "anarchic" commercial prospectors,
especially, that are "very, very bad. They destroy
all [of the resources and environment]," said a
former soldier. "People are just thinking about the
short term benefits, the money, but they don't think
about the long-term credibility."
By "people" he means the Pailin administration.
And Pailin is administered by Ee Chhean.
For every person who consents a good opinion of the man
who led them away from the hated Pol Pot and Ta Mok and
showed so much bravery and skill in bringing Pailin to
peace, another now doubts his ability to properly govern
Chhean was said to be one of Pol Pot's personal
bodyguards. He is not formally educated but still has the
slavish following of many. Vet, who used to cook for him,
says "Ee Chhean is good and kind. Now he is ban
thoeu thom" - a high ranking official.
But others say that Chhean has sold off lucrative road
contracts to Thai companies and at least one from Korea.
The road builders have criss- crossed Pailin with
massively wide boulevards, but they remain unpaved.
In exchange for this haphazard city planning, the
companies pocket pay- dirt said to be rich in rubies and
sapphires. Hence, the wider the roads, the more dirt they
get. But perhaps the dirt isn't quite as rich as the
companies thought it might be.
Those who know say that Sary - who has little executive
responsibility - has nevertheless been moved to
"advise" Chhean about his style of governance.
Several times, sources say, Sary has had Chhean over to
his home forrespectful, personal chats about taking
"the right path" for Pailin. It didn't seem to
work. The last time, sources say, Chhean ignored the
Chhean has been cheated in business deals, one source
added. Cheated comprehensively and easily.
The old Khmer Rouge fighters slip readily into
revolutionary vernacular these days, saying that
"girl chasers" and "drunkards" cannot
lead Pailin in a good way.
Others are more complimentary. They say that perhaps
Chhean should have some advisers. He has learned a lot
about city governance - perhaps "state"
governance would be closer the truth - but that he often
takes decisions on his own.
The policies of the new government in Phnom Penh are
plainly not appreciated and Pailin did the unthinkable on
July 26: its voters rejected a formal order from Ieng
Sary to vote CPP and elected a Sam Rainsy Party (SRP)
"Because of this anarchy [involving prostitution,
gambling and gem deals], that's why the SRP came from far
away, spent a moment of time here and got all of these
people's support," said one official.
SRP Secretary General Yim Sokha says there are many
reasons for the party's victory in Pailin.
"The most important thing was because the local
authority correctly fulfilled the policies of
democracy," Sokha says. "And thanks to Mr Ee
Chhean who perfectly fulfilled his duty in an independent
Pailin believed Rainsy was a good, nationalistic leader,
and that SRP candidate Hut Try - a former guerrilla - had
personally taken care of and loved the people, he says.
Try - who couldn't be contacted in Pailin for an
interview - sold a piece of his local land for $3 a
square meter to a Khmer buyer, instead of $5 that he
could have got from a Thai businessman, to pay for his
election campaign, Sokha says.
"People thought that he is a good person even before
he was an MP. So they think if he became an MP he would
be able to continue doing good, that's why people elected
him," Sokha says.
Sokha says that the SRP will cooperate with Chhean on
The internal squabbling within SRP's Phnom Penh
headquarters, where Try is being publicly undermined by
Sun Kim Hun (who was actually first on the party's Pailin
list and wants the seat himself) may not sit well with
the Pailin electorate. However, Sokha's comments make it
plain that Try, the local, will retain the blessing of
the party hierarchy.
The distrust and unease in Pailin may be darkening even
more. There is a sense that Pailin's citizens - and not a
few of its soldiers - are upset that former KR commander
Nuon Paet was lured out of Pailin and arrested six days
after the election in connection with the murder of three
Western tourists in Kampot in 1994.
"If they give someone amnesty, they should do all of
the Khmer Rouge. They should forget about the past. If
not, this may destroy national reconciliation," said
one official, on condition of anonymity. "It's time
all people have to look to the future, not the