B ATTAMBANG - The debacle in which the Khmer Rouge advanced virtually unopposed
to close within shelling distance of Battambang has left many international aid
workers and observers shaking their heads in disbelief.
Many spoke of
corruption within the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces leading up to the disaster,
which forced 40,000 people to flee their homes and caused millions of dollars in
damage, with whole villages being burned down.
Years of work by thousands
of Cambodians, helped by international aid organizations, to improve life in
communities along Highway 10 went up in smoke.
For one veteran expat
involved in development work it was the final straw. He said: "I'm just
completely sick and tired of this country. I want to get a posting elsewhere - I
don't care where it is.
"There's a real general depression here among the
expats. The army and the government have got to do their part and not leave it
to the international organizations.
"Things were better here before Untac
came. At least then the army was better organized and disciplined, security was
better and the government wasn't so corrupt."
The wanton destruction was
immense. Apart from the destruction of villages at least two rice processing
factories were burned out, perhaps deliberately targeted by the KR. A clinic
modernized and enlarged by World Vision at Sdau was wrecked by shelling and
several schools in the area are also thought to have been hit. Many areas were
still under KR control and NGOs have yet to assess the damage but it is certain
to run into millions of dollars.
At least a quarter of the refugees were
returnees from the Thai border camps who had been trying to chisel out a new
life in fertile rice growing areas, said Andy Pendleton, a field officer with
the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
Battambang Vice Governor
General Serei Kosal admitted his fellow generals who had been in charge of the
garrison of the newly captured Khmer Rouge stronghold at Pailin had been more
interested in dividing up the spoils than building up their defenses to an
inevitable KR counterattack.
He said that many disillusioned soldiers had
deserted their posts and streamed back along Highway 10 from Pailin to spend the
Khmer New Year with their families in Battambang.
Gen Kosal said: "Our
troops didn't want to attack the KR, they were unhappy about their
There are even tales of generals claiming the plushest
villas belonging to leading KR cadre and erecting their own name boards outside,
or those of Chinese merchants from Battambang with whom deals had been
Not surprisingly when a sizable Khmer Rouge force showed up to
reclaim the town, RCAF soldiers, who often are not paid their $20 a month
salaries, put up little or no resistance and fled.
When asked of the
generals' fate Kosal said: "They are being sent to Phnom Penh for discipline."
He refused to give numbers or elaborate further.
The rot had set in and
when the KR mounted an offensive along Highway 10 with a force numbering no more
than 500, they again were virtually unopposed until they reached the hill
fortifications at Phnom Sompho, around 20 km west of Battambang..
captured KR soldier is even believed to have said: "We never planned to come
this far and we couldn't believe there was no one to stop us."
the army press-ganging recruits by going from house to house at the height of
the battle are legion, some said boys as young as 13 were taken. Many young
Khmer men slept in haystacks or backyards to avoid being picked up. The Khmer
human rights group Licadho is investigating the claims.
Around 80 percent
of around 350 international aid workers pulled out of the town in two huge
convoys on successive days as the tension in the town reached its climax when a
government cannon opened fire.
Many then made a hasty decision to leave
though it later emerged the gun was being tested. The expats' departure sent a
further wave of panic through Cambodians without the means to escape the
Kampuchea Airline tickets to Phnom Penh were fetching $80-100 at
the height of the panic and there were even stories of rich Khmers demanding to
stow away in plane baggage compartments.
A Kampuchea Airlines spokesman
promised an investigation, though one staff member in Battambang blamed
"businessmen" for buying tickets en bloc and selling them at inflated
What was behind the KR counterattack on Battambang? Many spoke of
the capture and stripping of Pailin by the generals as "stirring up a hornets'
And a seasoned expat observer in Battambang pointed out that
destroying development work, disrupting NGOs and sowing panic, is part of a
survival strategy for the KR.
He said: "The Khmer Rouge problem won't go
away until the government starts doing something to win the hearts and minds of
"At the moment many farmers are better off living under the
KR, they are given a plot of land and maybe even an oxen and at least they are
not having money extorted from them.
"The KR are scared by development
work and they want to stop it. If people's lives are improved they won't be
tempted to join them."
One aid worker gave a graphic example of how the
army is playing into the hands of the KR by extorting cash from
She said a headman at Wat Leap, 2 km east of the town, had
told her that an army officer had begun demanding 300,000 riel a month from the
village to avoid the conscription of young males.