On the night of Oct 1, 1997, Saosim Saotraeak hosted a party at his home in Kirirom
district of Takeo province after paying respect to dead relatives during the Buddhist
holiday Pchum Ben. A Funcinpec loyalist who had gained the respect of many villagers
in the area, the 49-year-old farmer planned to run for commune chief against the
CPP incumbent before local elections were postponed indefinitely.
While Saotraeak enjoyed food and drink with his friends and family, the CPP-loyal
deputy commander of the commune's militia burst into the home brandishing an AK-47
and proceeded to shoot him and four others.
Three died on the spot. Guests and family rushed to get the two wounded to safety
when a grenade was tossed into the gathering crowd. One of the wounded was killed
and five additional people were injured. The remaining victim was left to bleed to
death in the street.
"The last wounded man was left because the attackers were still around and no
one dared to help him," said a human rights worker who related the savage tale.
"If you talk to the people in the village, everyone knows who did it, but nothing
has been done about it. The chief of the village refused to offer assistance and
even instructed the villagers not to talk about the incident," the rights worker
A grievance was finally filed at the provincial courthouse, but rights workers said
the prosecutor who issued the warrant for the militiaman's arrest deliberately entered
a wrong date, effectively invalidating the document.
The murderer remains free.
The incident is one of about 20 suspected instances of political killings that occurred
well after the more than 40 political executions documented by the UN Center for
Human Rights in the wake of the July coup.
In a stated move to help foster a neutral political atmosphere for this year's parliamentary
elections, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen last month drove a bulldozer over 1,500
antiquated rifles during a ceremony that kicked off a campaign to disarm an unspecified
portion of the nation's estimated 40,000-70,000 militiamen.
RCAF and Defense Ministry officials later said the disarming effort will soon spread
from Phnom Penh to the provinces, but they would not state how many militiamen would
remain active throughout the country for the election campaign.
Khmer Nation Party president Sam Rainsy heralded Hun Sen's actions, calling it a
positive development for opposition parties because "in the countryside, it
is not the regular soldiers who come to kill you, it is the militia".
Despite the story of Saosim Saotraeak, the rights worker disputed this assertion.
About 60-70% of human rights violations in the provinces are perpetrated by members
of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), according to the source, while an estimated
5-10% are credited to militiamen.
But no matter which arm of the CPP-dominated security apparatus is responsible for
human rights violations, rights workers warn that instances of political intimidation
and killings have increased dramatically since CPP-led forces expelled their Funcinpec
counterparts from Phnom Penh and provincial capitals last July.
There are two kinds of political killings being perpetrated, according to a rights
worker. One category is defined as those victims who, after the coup, wound up on
a list of political opponents slated for extermination by leaders of the nation's
The other, which rights workers say includes the case of Saotraeak, is killings caused
by a growing mentality among local authorities - chiefly CPP-affiliated - that they
have been given tacit approval to go after, and kill, their political opponents.
Although the UNTAC elections of 1993 patched together a national government out of
several warring factions, district and commune leadership positions remained in the
hands of the nation's previous ruling party, the CPP. Commune elections were scheduled
for 1997 but were postponed in favor of concentrating on national polls as time and
money became less and less available.
In the meantime, commune and districts chiefs remain almost exclusively CPP, while
the voice of the opposition in the countryside has been virtually silenced. And under
the direct control of the commune and district chiefs is the village militia, generally
a small group of farmers who are given weapons and a small salary to protect their
village against guerrilla insurgency, or more specifically, the Khmer Rouge.
Rights workers and military analysts agree that in the vast majority of Cambodia,
the Khmer Rouge are no longer a threat and militiamen they consider to be "political
appointees" of the CPP are no longer needed.
"In terms of security requirements, there are very few areas that still have
such needs. In other words, the militia should be disbanded in most areas,"
one rights worker said.
Yet in the RCAF Special Military Region where the process of disarming militias appears
to be legitimately taking place, district and commune leaders expressed a different
view - fears that crime will increase as bandits realize the local authorities have
Suong Sak, RCAF commander of Ponhea Leu district of Kandal province, claimed that
crime has tripled in the district since he first received orders a few months ago
to disarm a significant portion of the 195 militiamen under his charge.
The district commander also cited an increase in Khmer Rouge activity in the north
of nearby Kampong Chhnang province since resistance general Nhek Bun Chhay's army
fled Phnom Penh.
"Earlier, the Khmer Rouge problem disappeared [when Ieng Sary's forces joined
the government in 1996], but in the last four months we have had problems along the
Tonle Sap from mobile Khmer Rouge units," Suong Sak said.
Police and militia commanders in Tumnub Thom commune on the border of Kandal and
Kampong Speu provinces shared their superior's worry that crime will be a problem
now that two-thirds of the commune's 30 militiamen have been disarmed.
They cited an incident late last year when military police were called in to help
investigate a spate of armed robberies. After leaving the scene of a recent robbery,
three military policemen were killed in an ambush set up by the bandits along the
road that marks the provincial boundary.
"If there is no militia, there will be such security problems because of armed
bandits," Suong Sak said.
Incidents such as the death of the three military policemen led the commune authorities
to re-arm all 30 militiamen, said Hong Huot, Tumnub Thom deputy police chief, but
the ceremony led by Hun Sen at the Special Military Region headquarters convinced
them to get back with the program.
"Whatever decision is made by the high-ranking officials we must accept,"
Tumnub Thom militia commander Phan Phorn said. "But this order makes the people
in my village scared and now I don't know what to do."
Military analysts and human rights workers disagreed, saying they believed most instances
of crime in the provinces are perpetrated by those with guns and power. "Militias
aren't in the villages to fight crime. That's the job of the police," one analyst
The presence of military police during the investigation suggests that militiamen
or RCAF soldiers were suspected of being involved in the robberies, but the commune
officials denied any foul play by members of the local security forces.
"It is difficult to identify them. Sometimes they wear military uniforms...
but I don't think they are real soldiers," Hong Huot said, later adding there
was a possibility that soldiers from surrounding areas could have come to Tumnub
Thom to plunder.
However, a local taxi driver noted that soldiers and militiamen previously operated
illegal checkpoints along the provincial boundary road to extract informal taxes
from passing motorists. He said the checkpoints disappeared after Hun Sen unveiled
his eight-point security plan last August.
District and commune officials denied participating in extortion along the road,
putting the blame for illegal checkpoints squarely on undisciplined "anarchic
forces" led by Nhek Bun Chhay.
Disarmed militiamen are still receiving monthly pay of 13,000 riel, they said, so
there are no problems stemming from a sudden lack of income.
None knew, however, how much longer the Ministry of Defense planned to support them.
Asked if the disarming would achieve the stated goal of creating a correct atmosphere
for the July election, they agreed emphatically and asserted that villagers in the
area were free to support any party they wished.
"My duty is also to secure the area for elections to make sure they are free
and fair," Phan Phorn said. "In my opinion, the election will take place
in a good atmosphere free of violence or intimidation."
With less than six months before polling day, the only political party signboards
observed in the commune were CPP. The most prominent was placed above the entrance
of the commune headquarters.
Hong Huot claimed other political parties will be allowed to erect signboards in
his commune once they receive permission from the government. He said both Funcinpec
and Son Sann's faction of the BLDP had supporters in the commune.
The local leaders' optimism was not shared by one military analyst who cautioned
that "Hun Sen is never completely sincere when he talks about free and fair
"When they say they are dismantling the militia it is difficult to believe one
hundred percent because the commune and district leadership are all CPP. There is
no control," he said.
The rights worker commented that some militiamen may be disarmed, but because they
are still on the payroll and their loyalties are presumably unchanged, he feared
they are being "simply kept around in case they are needed".