SPINACH TO SPYING
Sat Ritha, who crossed Khmer Rouge lines to bring notes and assurances to her relatives who led the Anlong Veng breakaway.
O'BAI TAP - Among the clean but simply-dressed commanders and their poor, bedraggled
soldiers and families who had fled Anlong Veng, she stood out. Diamond earrings,
gold bracelets, faded nail polish, nice clothes and immaculate hair; she didn't look
like your average Khmer Rouge.
Two months ago, she ran a vegetable stall at Siem Reap market, until a night-time
visit by a top army intelligence officer. Then she became a secret government agent.
Now she's in line for a medal.
Sat Ritha is the woman who crossed into Khmer Rouge territory to carry messages between
the plotters of the Anlong Veng breakaway and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).
For her, bridging the gap between the battlefield enemies was no big deal - her husband
is a district Cambodian People's Party (CPP) official, her brother-in-law a government
army officer, and her cousin was a top Khmer Rouge commander.
She was used to visiting her cousin - Yim Phanna, a KR regional commander for Siem
Reap, Kampong Thom and Kampong Chhnang - and other relatives in the 'liberated zones'.
"I wasn't afraid," Ritha said of smuggling messages across the frontlines,
a task which would have earned her certain death had she been caught by the wrong
"From the government side, I had authorization to cross to the other side. On
the Khmer Rouge side, they knew I was a relative of Yim Phanna and they were afraid
they would get in trouble if they bothered me. And they all wanted to defect anyway."
Speaking from O'Bai Tap, a spot of barren land where 3,000-4,000 refugees have set
up camp after fleeing Anlong Veng about 50km to the north, Ritha recounted her small
but vital role in the split which rocked the Khmer Rouge headquarters.
She said that when she had last seen her cousin Phanna on a KR-held mountain on Jan
29, he told her of his frustrations with Ta Mok. "He told me he wanted to break
away from the Khmer Rouge. He said: 'If the government can support me, I will run
away from Ta Mok.
"We took photos of ourselves at the top of the mountain," she recalled.
"I took the photos as souvenirs, but later I was able to show them to the government,
to prove that we were relatives."
Ritha said that she did not inform the government, but one way or another - possibly
through her husband or brother-in-law, both CPP members - army officials heard about
Phanna's desire to defect.
She continued working at Siem Reap market until mid-February, when the Royal Cambodian
Armed Forces (RCAF) deputy chief of intelligence from Phnom Penh, Colonel Dom Hak,
paid her a visit.
"Mr Dom Hak came to my house one night and asked me if I was a relative of Yim
Phanna. I said yes, and showed him the photos of us on the mountain. I told him what
Yim Phanna had said. Dom Hak trusted me and said 'Can you send some letters to him?'"
Agreeing, she found herself employed overnight by the RCAF's Second Bureau of the
General Staff. Her brother-in-law Rath, a Siem Reap army officer, was promoted to
the national Second Bureau as well.
"My brother-in-law was a little frightened of contacting Yim Phanna, so they
asked me to help them do it. I was very surprised when they asked me to join them.
Now the Second Bureau is very surprised because we did this job very quickly. We
got it done in one and a half months."
On Feb 28, Ritha, carrying a letter from Dom Hak, crossed into KR territory through
the government-held village of Khna, roughly 70km south of Anlong Veng. She said
she drove three hours on a moto to where she thought Phanna would be, but her cousin
wasn't there: injured by a landmine near Phnom Kulen, he was recuperating in Anlong
She gave the letter to one of his deputies, Vong Phak, a member of a "breakaway
committee" established by disgruntled Div 980 officials loyal to Phanna.
"After he read the letter, he got a tape recorder out and started to speak,"
Ritha remembered. "He also took out some film for me to develop in Siem Reap."
The tape was the would-be defectors' requests to the government; the film contained
pictures of the committee members, she said.
Asked what was said on the tape, she replied: "Mr Vong Phak asked the government
to let them keep control, like in Pailin, to keep the boundaries, to have independence,
[but] to have reconciliation and integration [with the government].
"He also asked for support, for weapons... to fight [against Ta Mok] between
the 15th and 20th of March."
Taking the tape and film to Dom Hak in Siem Reap, Ritha returned to the KR zone in
early March. "I brought a second letter from Dom Hak, asking them to send representatives
to Siem Reap."
The KR conspirators sent five delegates to a meeting at Siem Reap deputy governor
Nouv Sam's residence on March 13, at which an agreement was struck, Ritha said.
Her job was done. But she had to wait another fortnight to see the fruits of her
work; RCAF asked that the breakaway be delayed past March 20 to give enough time
to prepare forces to help secure Anlong Veng.
On March 26 - four days after Ta Mok, tipped off about the breakaway plot, fled Anlong
Veng, and two days after the first fighting - Ritha met her cousin at O'Bai Tap.
At Dom Hak's request, she stayed there to help look after Phanna, who has established
his command base at the refugee camp; in her jewelry and smart clothes, she mingles
with men in Mao caps and cooks food over an campfire.
"Dom Hak says I will get some kind of medal," she said. "When Anlong
Veng is finished, I will not be working but I will still get some salary and be able
to go to meetings [with the defectors]."
And she'll probably go back to selling vegetables at Siem Reap market, she said.