Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Land, not legal, problems loom in former Red zone

Land, not legal, problems loom in former Red zone

Land, not legal, problems loom in former Red zone

PHNOM VOAR, CHAMKAR BEI - For the old soldiers in this ex-Khmer Rouge stronghold

in southwest Cambodia, memories of the Pol Pot days are bad enough without being

reminded of the war crimes tribunal going on in Phnom Penh.

"We heard about the court on radio, but we had enough pain during our lives

as Khmer Rouge," said Ann Orn, 58, a former KR soldier who now lives as a farmer

in Chamkar Bei, a village of about 1,000 that includes many families of former soldiers

and lower ranking KR deputies.

Twelve years after the KR put down their weapons in the south, the villagers' big

problem is getting enough land to farm.

"The fighting war is ended, but we have the war on land," said Orn, interviewed

in his thatched hut where he was resting after lunch with his children, two young

boys and an older girl with a baby.

Although there is plenty of grisly evidence of the KR days hidden beneath the soil

here, the top commanders of the southwest are already in prison for other crimes.

The ex-soldiers of Chamkar Bei are not worried about being called to testify or having

any direct involvement in the tribunal because they were not the top people responsible

for the killing, they say.

Nhem Nat, 56, a big, curly haired, graying, former KR leader who is now a local Cambodian

People's Party elections official, was found with a group of several ex-KR soldiers

in a neighbor's house. He was inspecting a voter registration list.

Nat said he had been chief of the KR 222nd platoon of the 703rd division and he controlled

"about 500 to 600" KR soldiers. He said he and his neighbors have no dispute

with the decision to try former KR leaders.

"We here do not have any objection with the government forming the KRT. We are

small ranking officials. We followed the orders from Nuon Paet."

"Nuon Paet was the driver; we were just riding in the same car," he said.

"If we did not follow the order, we would be killed," Nat said. During

the fighting many people were killed on both sides of the battle, including some

of his relatives, he said.

Nuon Paet was commander in the Southwest region until late 1994 when negotiations

between the new government in Phnom Penh and the regional KR leaders reached an agreement

to cease fighting and reintegrate into civilian life. The so-called reconciliation

took place soon after KR rebels attacked a train, killing 20 people including three

western backpackers in August 1994.

Phnom Voar in Kep and Koh Sla in Kampot were long part of the stronghold of the southwest

Khmer Rouge under the control of Nuon Paet, Sam Bith and Chhouk Rin. All three men

are now in Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh serving life sentences for their role in

the pivotal train attack, which led to the KR surrender in the region.

According to the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the remains of about 9,000 victims

were found in nearly 30-year-old graves in May 2007 by villagers in Chhouk district.

About the same time graves at Prey O'Deibak near Phnom Voar were also found. About

200 graves were found in Koh Sla, another jungle hideout in the large KR territory

of Kampot.

Although they confess little interest, soldiers from the KR's southwestern command

know what is going on. Nat said that his commanders got their orders from the top

KR leaders based far to the north, specifically Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea, Khieu

Samphan, Hou Youn and Hu Nim.

So far, only Nuon Chea has been charged with any crimes by the tribunal, but other

arrests are believed to be forthcoming.

Since 1994, the region has changed considerably. After the reintegration agreements,

more Cambodian families gradually moved in. Jungle was cleared and the population

has increased tenfold since. The Chamkar Bei village is now home to the new Phnom

Voar Development Zone, and wealthy Cambodians from Phnom Penh and elsewhere are flocking

to buy land there for plantations of mangoes, durian and jackfruit. The ex-KR soldiers

who used to carry guns have turned to spades and knives to clear the forest for farming.

Land issues

Nat said about 100 families of former KR soldiers were each given a 1.5 hectare plot

of land after they agreed to put down their weapons in 1994 and 1995. But he said

a land dispute, principally with a businesswoman in Kampong Trach market known as

Teng Ly, has prevented many of them from getting the land they believe they were

given.

"About 29 families of ex-KR soldiers have a land dispute with Teng Ly,"

Nat said. "We have filed complaints to authorities and to the cabinet of the

Prime Minister, but there is no solution."

Orn said the land dispute is virtually unsolvable, because it involved a high-ranking

provincial official and the provincial court. Several months ago four villagers were

arrested and jailed for two months. They were released only after they agreed not

to complain further about the land, Orn said.

Vao Sokha, chief of land management at Kep, said the municipal committee for resolving

land disputes is investigating the case and neither of the parties have documents

providing proof of ownership.

Sokha said Chhouk Rin, the KR commander arrested with Nuon Paet, had originally divided

up the land for the former soldiers, and disputes arose when he was put in prison.

"We are thinking about concessions for both sides," Sokha said. "We

could not decide who is right or wrong."

For the old soldiers, the KR days are but a distant, terrible memory, when they dragged

their families through the jungle from one hideout to another. They said they couldn't

conceive of a peace where they would one day own land.

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