CHOAM KHSAN, Preah Vihear Province - Royal Cambodian Armed Forces General Nuon Mok
has no idea if Pol Pot is dead or alive and, if he's alive, where he might be. He's
also unsure about what is actually going on politically 100 kilometers west of here
in Anlong Veng.
But one thing he is clear on is that the Khmer Rouge should not be trusted.
"Whatever the Khmer Rouge are doing, it is probably a trick," Mok told
the Post at his RCAF Division 2, frontline headquarters near the Thai border last
week when asked about unconfirmed reports of Pol Pot's capture and Son Sen's execution.
General Nuon Mok is someone who should know the ways of the Khmer Rouge. For most
of the last 31 years he has been a soldier - under Sihanouk during the 60s, then
with Lon Nol's Khmer Republic, and later as a member of the resistance forces on
the Thai border in the 80s, when he joined Funcinpec's military wing and fought side-by-side
with the KR.
With a wry smile barely masking a sense of fatigue, Mok looks at his hammock - calling
it his "villa" - and says that he has spent about 20 years in total sleeping
For the last six months Mok has been commanding Division 2's efforts to combat the
Khmer Rouge in this remote, cut-off corner of Preah Vihear.
It's a nasty little war that has taken a substantial toll in life and limb.
"We've had 33 soldiers and civilians wounded by mines since June 1," said
Major Seng Sokun, Mok's chief of staff. One soldier was wounded by a mine on the
morning of the Post's arrival in Choam Khsan on June 19, his leg having been cut
off immediately by an army medic before he was flown to Phnom Penh by military helicopter
for further treatment.
"He stepped on a homemade mine about 5 kilometers from here," said Sokun.
"There are hundreds of mines everywhere. It's our worst problem."
Over the last two years, he estimates that more than 300 soldiers have either been
killed or wounded on this front.
However, since Jun 11, Mok says, his area of operations has been quiet. He says that
he heard from KR radio transmissions that unit commanders were told to break off
engagements and return to Anlong Veng. Mok also says that the KR have beefed up troop
strength at Preah Vihear Temple and may have set up some sort of new command headquarters
"Before one week ago you could hear about 100 explosions a day here," said
Mok, "Now it is all quiet. We're not really sure what's going on."
Mok also added that he was in contact with several KR commanders by radio and discussing
the possibility of their defecting.
"Two weeks ago some units agreed to defect," said Mok, "but due to
the problems between the two prime ministers their commanders said 'No'. They didn't
trust the government. When they heard that there was no amnesty for the KR leaders
they didn't agree to defect."
Mok said that the KR division commanders in his region were cadres "closely
associated with the 'killing fields'."
"They are worried about their future," he said, "If they defect, and
then they hear Hun Sen talking, they worry about their new position with RCAF."
Mok said he thought the KR were still thinking about the possibility of crossing
RCAF intelligence estimates that there are around 700 Khmer Rouge guerrillas operating
in Preah Vihear province in five separate divisions.
In the sparsely populated, heavily forested terrain, the cadre operate in small units
of four or five, and sometimes up to ten, using typical hit-and-run guerrilla warfare
The government controls the village of Saem, about 25 kms west of here and scattered
small outposts in between. The road to Saem is not much more than a dirt oxcart track.
KR guerrillas have mined it extensively.
"The KR are very clever," says Sokun, "They are making mines from
bamboo that are impossible to detect. They even put mines in trees with a string
across the track so that if a vehicle comes by the mine is set off."
Sokun said that the KR are now using "flying mines", which have a range
of about 300 meters. Apparently, one charge is placed under a piece of wood which
is set off, throwing another mine, catapault-like, on government positions.
"They don't want us to sleep at night," he sighs, noting that RCAF troops
have had flying mines land on the roofs of some of the structures they live in.
Villages further west of Saem - Kantout, Phum Char, and Phum Mei - are all controlled
by the KR, as is the village of Yeang to the south.
Refugees say they fled these villages when the KR came in early this year and attacked.
"The Khmer Rouge soldiers came when we were cutting and collecting rice in January
1997 and they kidnapped villagers to join their force," said Sim, a 70-year-old
woman from Kantout now living in a displaced persons camp in Choam Khsan. "If
someone refused they were killed."
The elderly woman said one of her sons was killed by the KR and another wounded.
She added that all the villagers escaped the hamlet and that the KR had burned down
most of the houses and rice stocks.
"The Khmer Rouge tried to follow us and kill us," she added, "Some
people lost their children in the forest on the way to Saem, as we couldn't use the
road due to mines."
Sim said that she had no food, was depending on handouts from people in Choam Khsan
and that if the government re-captured Kantout she would return home to build her
Choam Khsan District Chief Yan Ran estimates that there are over 1,000 refugees in
his district scattered through several communes. He's worried about feeding them.
"We will need 25 tonnes of rice for July, August and September to feed these
people," said Ran. He added that Action Contre La Faim had donated some rice
stocks and other provisions but that this wouldn't be sufficient.
Given the district's isolation, most goods come in by military helicopter and are
thus very expensive. Salt sells for 1,900 riels per kilo compared to 400 in Phnom
Penh. The dirt road to T'Beng Meanchey is open but dangerous due to guerrilla activity.
During the rainy season it is all but impassable.
The Thai border is only 20 kms away with a decent laterite road leading to An Sey
Pass, built by the Thai logging company BLP, but the border is now closed.
Ran said that he was to meet with his counterpart in Thailand's Nam Yeun District
on Jun 25 to discuss opening the border three days a week which, if it happened,
would help bring prices down.
Roeung, 82, lives in the local pagoda, which he says has good magic because when
the Khmer Rouge shelled Choam Khsan in 1994, none of the over 300 shells fired at
the town landed on the temple grounds.
His attitude sums up what everybody feels in Choam Khsan - both civilian and soldier
alike: "I always pray to God to please help Cambodia to end the war. I don't
want to die. I want to see my country have peace."