PAILIN - Few would have believed that when the breakaway Khmer Rouge opened its zones
people would flock from all over the country to live there. Every day families move
to Pailin and Phnom Malai in search of a better life, improved security and a sense
of enlightened egalitarianism.
"Nobody looks down on you if you are poor in Pailin," a noodle vendor who
moved from Battambang notes. "Because if you find a big ruby you can be rich
The city is coming back to life after years of war. Lieng Srieng, who has lived there
on and off since 1968, claims that he hardly recognizes the city or its new residents.
"People now are newcomers not old-timers. There were a lot living here then.
We had three cinemas," he recalls. "Only about one percent of that generation
lives here today."
"There are twenty-thousand families in and around Pailin now. People come from
all over Cambodia," says Pailin police chief Bou Sarin, who welcomes new arrivals
and is happy to dispel the city's 'Bad Boy' image.
"People here are nicer than in the rest of the country, but outsiders think
we are cruel," he says. "If the area is secure, people will come to do
People are flocking to Phnom Malai as well.
"Quite a lot of the 500 families here have relatives in the interior. We have
allocated land to them for private use. Now there are about thirty-thousand living
here from all provinces," says Sok Pheap, de facto governor of Malai. "Some
heard that there were good opportunities.
"I am happy to see them. I want to see a fence of people around my soldiers,"
he says. "They are like water and fish, the solders being the water. If the
water is cold, the fish will come to live. If the soldiers say the water is hot they
Many of the newcomers engage in some sort of business. The noodle vendor who came
from Battambang to Pailin says that she is happy, despite some peculiarities she
has discovered. "Local people eat breakfast at home. Most of my customers are
like me, from outside," she notes. "The locals eat noodles for lunch! Sometimes
even dinner! That's not the custom for Cambodians."
She came to Pailin three months ago complaining that the Battambang police and military
had a habit of forgetting to pay their bills in the restaurant she owned there. "I
came to check it out for three months. I paid B9,000 ($360) to rent this shop for
three months and pay B100 ($4) a month tax. It is really too expensive." She
eyes the dirt floor and corrugated tin walls with disdain. "I will build my
own restaurant soon. The potential is here."
Security plays a major role in attracting outsiders, but it comes with a surreal
sense of curtailed liberty. Pailin Radio broadcasts the thoughts for the day over
loudspeakers at six every morning. "Welcome newcomers. Prostitution and theft
are not allowed in Pailin," one broadcast said this month.
"We have 100 percent security. Pailin is more stable than the rest of Cambodia,"
says police chief Sarin. "It is prohibited to have thieves here. We don't want
them and we don't like them. You can leave your belongings lying around." Even
some gem trading shops do not have doors.
He says that most crimes elsewhere are committed by police and soldiers. "There
is no corruption [here], so there are no robbers. If officials are clean it is easy
to prevent. I have gone to different provinces and seen that the police are the robbers.
Here it is different."
He denies summary executions take place, stating that normative conditioning is the
only method his commander allows. "We re-educate them," he says. "We
never kill them."
Breakaway leader Ieng Sary claims to agree. "We have no courts or jails. People
need to know that if they do wrong it is bad for the nation," he says. "Then
we can reduce the police. We can use education and in the future we need prisons
Soldiers on the roads around Pailin and Phnom Malai do not extort money. When Pailin
governor Ee Chhean first traveled around the country legally he reportedly chided
his hosts for their soldiers' lack of discipline.
"Inside the country there are more checkpoints," his cabinet chief Nou
Sarin recalls him saying. He adds that delegations have yet to be detained in the
interior. "When they ask where we are from, we say 'Pailin' and there is no
Fear - whether well-founded or not - deters outsiders from taking advantage of their
hosts. The noodle seller has no problem with giving up some rights for security.
"There are no bandits here. They kill them," she laughs. "There are
no human-rights organizations. The people are straight. In this area if a thief comes,
they have only one exit - death. If the whole country can make rules like Pailin,
that would be good."