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The last general standing on the mountaintop

The last general standing on the mountaintop

In the nine months since the Phnom Penh fighting sent him fleeing to hole up at a

small, militarily insignificant mountain base on the Cambodian-Thai border, Nhek

Bun Chhay has never been far from controversy. Today, he is mired in it, finding

himself accused of seeking to revive the Khmer Rouge just when they're dying.

At the same time, the Funcinpec resistance commander is fighting for his own survival:

militarily, he and his men have shown they can defend their small bastion of O'Smach

but do little more than that; politically, he finds himself in danger of being the

last man out, the biggest loser in the diplomatic battles which saw his boss, Prince

Norodom Ranariddh, win an amnesty and return to Cambodia; sentenced in absentia to

24 years' imprisonment by a Phnom Penh court, Bun Chhay is lobbying for an amnesty

for himself and reintegration of his troops into the Cambodian army - a campaign

he expects to lose.

But he is not without friends, and today his existence is not a harsh jungle one.

A fragile cease-fire holds in the O'Smach area, allowing him and his forces respite

from government attacks. He has at least two houses across the border in Surin province,

Thailand, and travels around the province and to the Thai capital of Bangkok by Landcruiser.

Bun Chhay has made good use of his long-standing friends in the Thai military on

the border, dating back to the anti-Vietnamese resistance of the 1980s, and it is

to them that he probably owes his life. During his three-week perilous trek from

Phnom Penh to O'Smach, pursued by Hun Sen's soldiers, "my health was very weak.

My life was threatening [sic]. I traveled without food or water for days. I survived

like animal [sic]. I ate leaves and fruits instead of rice," the resistance

chief recounted in an English-language statement issued last week. "When I arrived

in O'Smach... I was sent to the hospital for health treatment in Surin, Thailand.

The doctor said that it was very lucky for me that I reached the hospital in time.

If I arrived [at] the hospital about two or three days later, I might...[have] died.

More than 300 thorns were pulled out of my feet."

Today, Bun Chhay officially lives with a small group of bodyguards and assistants

at a makeshift camp on Phnom Pov, a small hill on the border about 5km west of O'Smach.

A Thai flag flies over a military camp no more than 200 meters away; Thai officers

insist that Bun Chhay's camp, a few thatch and bamboo huts set in a grove of bamboo

trees, is on Cambodian soil. Phnom Pov offers commanding views over the easily-defended

approach to O'Smach - miles and miles of flat, open land suddenly rising up to Phnom

Sruot, the first of several mountains which encircle the resistance enclave.

Access to the camp for Bun Chhay and others is via a road from Thailand through a

sealed military area. Generally, the Thais are accommodating, though there have been

a few problems. One of his Landcruisers was reportedly seized by border police for

lack of tax or registration papers recently. And the May 1 start of a nationwide

illegal immigration crackdown by the Thais prompted one of Bun Chhay's deputies,

general Khan Savoeun, to register himself and his family with local authorities on

April 30.

"No-one wanted to tell Nhek Bun Chhay that he had to register," said one

official, but sure enough he also filled out the necessary papers the same day.

From Phnom Pov, Bun Chhay is trying to reach out to the world for support. Most recently,

Bun Chhay was visited April 11 by US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a conservative

who has been outspoken against "communist" Hun Sen and urged US military

aid to the Funcinpec resistance - a call which has raised the hopes of Bun Chhay

and his commanders, and angered Hun Sen's CPP party.

Thai soldiers and tanks were on hand to meet Rohrabacher's helicopter when it landed

at Prasat, Surin, and he was accompanied to the border to inspect neat rows of resistance

guerrillas.

On April 30, Thai soldiers escorted a group of Thai reporters to Phnom Pov for a

stage-managed press show. They were given copies of a six-page "Statement of

General Nhek Bun Chhay to the people of Cambodia and the world community", outlining

his version of events before and after the July fighting, and urging foreign support

for his resistance.

To try to deflect criticisms over the KR, Bun Chhay also wrote to the United Nations

Secretary General's envoy to Cambodia, Lakhan Mehrotra, urging him to send an observer

to check whether there was any cooperation between the resistance and the KR.

A beaming Bun Chhay walked around his camp for the TV cameras and answered questions

in fluent Thai, repeating "Ching, ching," ("really, really",

a Thai expression roughly meaning "You're joking") in his answers to questions

about his ties to the KR.

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