Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Ire as corruption brings disaster to Battambang poor

Ire as corruption brings disaster to Battambang poor

Ire as corruption brings disaster to Battambang poor

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

commanders."

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

struck.

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..

One

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."

Stories of

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

town.

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

prices.

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'

nest."

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

the people.

"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

villagers.

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.

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