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
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.
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
"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.