Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Former foes toast an end to war

Former foes toast an end to war

Former foes toast an end to war

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

and empathy.

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

and conversation.

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.


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