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Following the Pied Piper of O'Smach

Following the Pied Piper of O'Smach

PHNOM POV - They are a mixed lot at this border hilltop base - soldiers who fled Phnom Penh after the coup last July, students who have abandoned their studies. Even a Khmer-American who left his family and business in the United States.

They all say they have come to this Funcinpec resistance camp because of one man - Nhek Bun Chhay. He may be accused of many things, but failure to inspire loyalty is not one of them.

Mean Phen stands behind the general, looking at him, his arms crossed. He is wearing brand new camouflage fatigues like all of Nhek Bun Chhay's boys, but this not Phen's world. He is more used to the asphalt roads of his home town of Lowell, Massachusetts.

"I emigrated to the United States in 1980. Since then I have been living there with my five children and my wife," he says.

But in August when he heard about Bun Chhay's miraculous escape from Phnom Penh and his trek north to the border, Phen could not control his joy - Phen and Bun Chhay were playmates in their days at primary school in Thmar Puok.

"When I heard the news of the coup d'état I was worried," recalls Phen. But Bun Chay was safe and had a proposition for him.

"Bun Chhay called my friends in Boston from the hospital he was in after he ran away from Hun Sen. He told them that he wanted me to come and work with him."

Mean Phen agreed. He left his wife to take care of the five kids and his video business and arrived in Bangkok at the end of November.

"Bun Chhay came to pick me up at the airport in Bangkok. I hadn't seen him for a long time. I was very happy and hugged him," says Phen smiling as he recalled the story.

When asked why he had decided to join the fight, Phen says "I like democracy and I fight because Hun Sen made a coup d'état."

"The States is very good for the people. But now I want to fight here. I call my family twice a month.They miss me but I tell them I am OK and not to worry, I live with my friends."

To any question about the future of Bun Chhay and the armed struggle against Hun Sen, Phen has a simple response: "I stay with him, I stand by him. I like him."

But not everyone at the camp is as happy with their position. Som Vuthy has mixed feelings on his experience with Bun Chhay.

Vuthy was a student at the Institut de Technologie du Cambodge, in charge of a student association affiliated with Funcinpec. After the fighting in Phnom Penh, he started to feel threatened.

"Members of the CPP party were following me. They asked my family where I was. I was not safe, so as soon as I knew Bun Chhay was alive I decided to leave Phnom Penh," he says.

He traveled to Poipet and crossed into Thailand. He stayed first with Khmer Nation Party members and eventually was put in contact with Bun Chhay and met him in Prasat, Thailand.

"When I arrived there were already four students with him," says Vuthy. "Now they are twenty living in the base and linking their fate to Bun Chhay's."

"When I met him the first time, I was very happy. I left Phnom Penh to see him, thinking he could help me."

Now he says life is difficult. "We have no water." Vuthy and his friends are used by the soldiers to build wooden shelters among bushes near the camp.

When asked what life with the military is like, Vuthy confesses that he doesn't want to be a soldier and that he wants to go back. But he quickly: "It is according to Nhek Bun Chhay, I go where he sends me."

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