THE last thing the new coalition government needs is the historical tinderbox of
Cambodia's northwest to start sparking.
In the past fortnight there has been heavier fighting and casualties in Samlot, an
attempted secession of Malai, and dark mutterings about "war" among some
officials in the semi-autonomous zone of Pailin.
But the story coming out of the northwest is less about threats to the country's
peace and security. Rather, it seems more one of testimony to the government's stre-ngth
and confidence, and about the further weakening of those who would oppose it.
Pailin's problem is that representatives of an international tribunal, which is due
to look into the Democratic Kampuchea's 1975-79 rule, have gained assurances from
the government that surviving DK leaders will be offered up for trial when the tribunal
is finally set up.
Near or at the top of that list is Pailin's political leader, Ieng Sary. But some
people in Pailin seem to have a big problem with that.
"If we did not bring peace to Pailin the government would also have [had] no
peace. If [the international community] don't want us to have peace, what do they
want?" said one former Khmer Rouge official, speaking anonymously. "Do
they want war?"
"I'm sorry," said Pailin deputy governor Ieng Vuth, Sary's son, when asked
what would happen if his father was deposed to appear before such a tribunal. "I
don't want to answer that because it relates to national reconciliation."
Sary is sick, recovering slowly from another heart operation performed Nov 12 or
13 in Thailand, said Vuth, and could not be interviewed last week.
However, sources in Phnom Penh believe that Pailin's ambitious and younger governor,
Ee Chhean, may have been persuaded that Sary has outlived his usefulness.
Chhean, who controls Pailin's guns and doesn't have a fat Khmer Rouge dossier of
charges against his name, was also not available to be interviewed.
The only person capable, analysts say, of being strong enough to persuade Chhean
to ensure Pailin's peace and compliancy if and when Ieng Sary is sum-monsed, and
who would garner international kudos for it, is Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
However, some people still believe that Hun Sen may be happy to leave Pailin alone,
whatever he may have told the UN experts.
While many people living in an increasingly suspicious Pailin fret, unrelated events
have lit up Phnom Malai and Samlot in past days.
In Malai, a bumbling (or, perhaps, suicidal) rebellion was quashed by authorities
on Nov 11 and 12, around the same time Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Rana-riddh were
striking their deal for a coalition government.
The physics of the uprising may forever be sketchy, but in short up to 30 armed men
from Beung Beng commune in Malai took guns away from local police and militia on
the night of the 11th. By 3am they had damaged the district headquarters and had
tried mobilizing dozens - some say up to 200, but at least 60 - locals to gather
in the streets that morning on the promise of free rice, and secede the township
to "abolish communism and the Hun Sen regime". Many of those had been told
to arm themselves if they could find weapons.
The ringleaders belonged to the Aranyaprathet-based resistance group called Cambodian
Freedom Fighters (CFF), headed by Ta Mok commander Dul Saroeun. Most of them escaped
to Thailand from Malai, leaving incoming local authorities led by former KR commander
Sok Pheap from Poipet and RCAF chiefs to arrest those left behind. Those now under
lock-and-key - 15 in Battambang jail, and another nine rumored to be in Thai custody
- are probably culpable in the revolt to varying degrees, local rights workers say.
Local sources say 40 or more people may have been arrested, or that these people
may have either euphemistically or in reality "fled to the jungle".
Authorities say the mutiny was put down peacefully. Rights workers don't disbelieve
them, but forsee difficulty establishing how many individuals are missing for their
families, and who they are.
Some "rebels" probably knew that they were entitled to the free rice (which
never existed), but only if they were armed; others merely found themselves caught
up in the group, later to find themselves arrested. But others who have been arrested
are likely to have been more heavily involved.
In Samlot, the traditional flash-point of Khmer revolt, there has been heavier fighting
between the RCAF and KR soldiers led by Ta Muth and Eam Phan, who together control
a 15,000-strong civilian refugee camp on the Thai border.
Many RCAF soldiers have lately been killed or wounded in ambushes and raids. Official
figures are hard to come by: Pailin sources mutter "hundreds dead".
Pailin is keeping an eye on the trouble on its southern border. There is no love
lost between Pailin and the Muth/Phan faction of the KR ("if they want to play
with us," warned one Pailin soldier, "we'll play with them").
However, some people in Pailin - which is hosting more and more Samlot refugees fleeing
the KR's Thai-based camps - are as angry as Muth and Phan are that the RCAF has spent
months looting Samlot.
But, for the first time in many months, the northern part of Samlot district is about
to be opened up to international organizations and for the resettlement of people
originally displaced from around the area.
There is to be a helicopter reconnaisance of Ta Sanh, Sam-lot's capital, later this
month, and a Bailey bridge has been built to finally again provide road access into
the previously beleaguered district.
Mutiny in Malai? Strife in Samlot? Problems in Pailin? Perhaps, to some extent. But
they are unrelated events.
For the government, Malai's "mutiny" was put down quickly and completely
enough in a show of strength and confidence, the same attributes Phnom Penh is demonstrating
by opening up northern Samlot to international aid and resettlement - and also by
the way it may have been massaging Pailin to accept Sary's future arrest.