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
"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
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.