P AILIN - In the end, the enemies hugged each other in a field outside this former
Khmer Rouge capital. They laughed, they drank to each other's health, they swapped
stories, they danced.
It will be a testament to the Cambodian soldier's ability to follow orders should
these people ever start fighting again. It was plain, over five unprecedented days
of RCAF and Khmer Rouge camaraderie, that war is the last thing they want.
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen invited himself to Pailin on Oct 22 to meet Democratic
National Unity Movement (DNUM) supremo Ee Chhean and the people - despite, as he
said, fearing death to do so - and Pailin did this strange, surreal occasion proud.
From the time that the first 400 or more of Sen's protection force of soldiers and
police helicoptered into Pailin, three days before their leader was due, the atmosphere
was hearty and gracious, despite the terrible history.
RCAF soldier Yun Thei told of having to "finish off" a seriously wounded
KR defender during the 1994 offensive, just a few hundred meters away from where
he sat talking to former enemies Sum Vannak and Duong Thang. "He was just too
heavy to carry," Thei said. Vannak and Thang in reply just smiled in understanding
The men swapped stories of bravery. The Pailin soldiers appeared flattered by RCAF
admissions of past defeats. DNUM president Ieng Sary himself told the Post that Pailin's
front line "were the real heroes".
But conversations invariably turned to peace, to "one nation," and to the
by-now hackneyed "national reconciliation."
It was impossible to recount or know of the reunions the five days threw up: an RCAF
soldier meeting his aunt on a street corner; DNUM soldiers talking about seeing friends
and relatives in Pursat, or in Phnom Penh. A journalist even found the driver of
a tank who fired at the car in which he was passenger going into Pailin in 1994.
On Sunday Oct 20, when the first journalists arrived with Sen's soldiers, Pailin
seemed like a mystical place lost in an ocean of jungle. The beauty of the mountain
and jungle threw the scars of the open gem-mines, with yellow excavators working
around the clock, into sharp relief.
"Is this place demined?" one RCAF soldier said, his back bristling with
B-40 rockets. The incoming soldiers brought with them rice, food and Royal government
flags - boxes of them.
One passenger had a portrait of the King and Queen slung under his arm, which appeared
later on the wall of the new "hotel" called the Preah Sihanouk. The three-story
building had been specially refurbished by 30 Thais working 24-hours a day for three
"Ee Chhean called us on Friday to renovate three buildings," said Prapa
Sutam, the manager of the workers. "We put up curtains, linoleum, we did up
the bathroom, the ceiling, the doors, the fans. Everything." It cost 300,000
baht ($12,000). The bathroom was fitted with the newest plumbing, though the water
didn't flow. Even Chhean's house got a spruce up.
A new hospital had been build off the dirt road into town, but hadn't yet been used.
DNUM, having only repopulated Pailin in the past three months, use a mobile medical
unit. The Pailin Monorom guest house in the center of town had been destroyed by
a government air strike a year ago and lay in ruins.
There is only one land-line telephone into Pailin via Thailand. Twenty-four hour
electricity is produced by a collective generator. There are no restaurants, though
one house had been converted into a noodle shop.
There is no market, but pick-up trucks make regular trips to Thailand, coming back
with fruit, vegetables and wares. Clothes, candles, batteries and food, and much
more, can be bought in small roadside shops.
Baht is the currency of choice. Riel notes from Phnom Penh had never been seen and
the locals pored over them. "Sooner or later we'll use the same, once the government
and the movement is united," said one DNUM soldier.
Private business arrived even before Hun Sen did. "I came three months ago through
Thailand," said Leang, a Khmer-Canadian who wanted to open a hotel and night
club "or maybe a gas station."
Leang knew of at least 30 people who had already arrived from Battambang looking
to buy land and start businesses. "I think it is the time to come. In the next
months lots of people will arrive and it will be too late," he said.
The civilian population live in spartan but solid houses. There is appreciably more
money in circulation here than in most of rural Cambodia, and the people appear well-dressed
and fed. After the initial shock of seeing foreigners and former enemies in town,
they soon got over any shyness.
Those who found a common language could not have been more generous in offering company
Property is the key. "I cleared one hectare of jungle by my own hand. I burned
all the land, and planted it in rice. I have a hectare of rice and that is all I
need, and all I want," said one man. Everyone has a plot of land: former soldiers
have blocks 50 meters square; all other families have blocks measuring 50 meters
by 25 meters.
There is no prostitution in Pailin, no beggars and no crime. Scores of soldiers and
civilians were asked this question, and all said: "No, there is no crime. No
stealing, nothing." They have heard about crime in Phnom Penh, but seem sure
that won't happen in Pailin.
The day before Hun Sen arrived, RCAF general Pon Savath wrote the official welcoming
speech to be delivered by Nheap, the deputy of Pailin's 415 regiment. Savath twice
read out the speech to a handful of DNUM commanders, each of them pretending to be
Hun Sen receiving it. Savath ran through what words and phrases should be stressed.
When Nheap's turn came to practice he didn't want to make the speech, so got one
of his lieutenants to. The speaker even grabbed Savath's general's cap to make the
scene more realistic, and imitated Savath as precisely as he could.
The Post ran into Ieng Sary's wife Khieu Tirith - Pol Pot's sister-in-law - outside
the Preah Sihanouk. Speaking perfect French, as did her husband, Tirith said the
people of Pailin just wanted peace.
She said she was "retired" and would like to go back to Phnom Penh. "We've
spend a lot of money on Pailin. It used to be a very nice town. You can see what's
remaining," she said, looking around to the bombed building and the abandoned
A group of nightclub singers from Battambang - probably the stars of Pailin - were
as incongruous as a snow storm in the jungle. The vampy female singers wore glitzy
mini-skirts, skimpy T-shirts, outrageous make-up and lots of shiny jewelry. They
were stared at open-mouthed wherever they went - but they put on a concert like Pailin
hasn't seen for years.
On the Monday night they sang and danced till 7pm, the show being closed "because
[the authorities] were worried we'd be too tired for Hun Sen the next day,"
said one DNUM soldier. They partied till 1am the next night.
"Do you love me?" cajoled the lead singer.
"Yeahhhh," yelled hundreds of soldiers crowding the stage, slightly stunned
by the occasion and the Singha beer.
"Do you think I'm beautiful?"
"Yeahhh," they yelled. This was heady stuff.
"Well, just move away from the stage. And open up the circle. I'm going to sing
I'm Sixteen Years Old."
And they cheered, and danced, and sang. Hundreds watched from the tops of crowded
walkways. Babies and children slept in hammocks and on mats. There were more people
at the dancing party than were there for Hun Sen's speech.
"Hey, take a photo," said one RCAF soldier sitting with a new-found amputee
mate from the DNUM army. "Tell the international organizations to come here
and help my friend. He needs a new leg, better than this one," he said, holding
up a crude prosthetic that are so common here.
When Hun Sen left, after a closed-door meeting with Chhean, Tirith, Sary, Teng Boon
Ma and others, all the flags were lowered from trees and posts within 12 minutes
and neatly folded to go back to Phnom Penh in the helicopter.
The next day, Wednesday, the place seemed empty. The clouds were low and it was drizzling,
and almost cold. This was the reality after the party.
The DNUM soldiers packed their gear into haversacks, slung guns and radios around
their necks, and readied themselves for rides back to Malai and the rural and forest
villages from where they came.
Some of the store owners boxed up goods into pick-up trucks ready to return to their
markets nearer the Thai border.
The government soldiers of regiment 911, the red berets, packed up from the pagoda
and marched in single file through the morning mist to the field where they'd wait
in the rain for their ride home.