Siem Reap-For many in the front-line provinces of Cambodia's north and west, the
Paris Peace Agreements and United Nations sponsored elections have yet to bring
either peace or change.
Preparation for heavy fighting has begun, crime
and banditry are rampant and the mood of government soldiers and farmers is
burly and cynical.
Many express frustration and puzzlement over the
inability of the new government and the Khmer Rouge (KR) to stop a return to the
fighting that has crippled much of this part of the country.
week-long drive through Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, and Siem Reap provinces,
military activity was seen everywhere. Troops and weapons moving to new front
lines, hospitals already filling up with new casualties from renewed fighting,
and rogue unpaid soldiers stealing from and threatening those with anything
Morale at front-line positions is poor, with many government
soldiers complaining they have no food, ammunition or medicine while the orders
from Phnom Penh are to prepare to go to battle any day.
soldiers don't want to fight, it is only Khmer killing Khmer," said General Em
Saray, the 12 division deputy commander based at Baby Elephant village, west of
Sisophon, seven kilometers from KR front lines.
"Nobody wants to fight,
but we are soldiers so when our leaders order us, we do what we are told. But
all the rank and file - the KR and us - don't want to fight, but we must obey.
It is hard to understand why the leaders of both sides don't want to
Twenty meters away, craters testified to a KR rocket attack
that killed two and wounded three only hours before.
"Now the government
gives us only rice, we have no food for our soldiers. We have no salaries since
November. Our number one problem is malaria, our number two problem is the
wounded don't have medical supplies. So our base has to trade with Thailand to
buy medicine," said Gen Em Saray.
The day before, 21 of his soldiers were
wounded during fighting with the KR.
The dull thud of artillery near
government front lines four kilometers to the south could be heard during this
interview on Jan. 4.
"The United States should take all the leaders from
the KR and the Royal Government to the U.S . and let a new generation of younger
leaders take over," suggested the general, with a half smile.
Reap, soldiers were paid with 50 riel notes at the beginning of January after
three months with no salary.
But market traders refuse to accept the
currency as they say the government banks will not recognize it.
week, angry soldiers looted the main market in Siem Reap, shooting dead one
"Everyday soldiers harass and disturb us. They pay 1000 riel for
an item that is supposed to cost 3000 riel or just take anything without
paying," said Say Nary, a stall holder at Siem Reap market.
"The 50 riel
notes are worthless. We have to buy our goods in Thai Baht or gold. I don't know
what to say and we have no idea how to help the soldiers," she said
On Jan. 7, hundreds of 50 riel notes were ripped in half
by discontented troops seen littering the streets after their money was again
refused at the market.
"Yesterday, soldiers tried to break into stores
and steal our property," said one trader who asked not to be named.
military police came and intervened," he added.
"They come and rob us at
gun point but we cannot help them with bunches of 50 riel notes. Even the
vegetable sellers refuse to accept them. We will if the provincial authority
takes them. We don't know when this will end," he said.
Along Route 5
west of Sisophon, new heavy weapons emplacements line the road, and troops
unload land mines and move rocket launchers to front-line positions.
gunners shell government positions which are only meters from the highway-the
main route for trade and travel for international relief
Farmers continue to harvest in pockets of usable land
surrounded by minefields marked by red signs with skulls and warning
UN funded demining trainers and teams drive the roads in land
cruisers, while soldiers from both sides unload new mines sent to the front.
These days, more mines are laid than picked up.
Along Route 6 between
Sisophon and Siem Reap dozens of checkpoints manned by surly, heavily armed
soldiers demand goods and money from all who travel the roads.
NGO agencies in Sisophon have banned their staff from traveling the stretch
after two cars were stolen at gun point in recent days.
Near Preah Net
Preah, soldiers stopped two journalists on Jan. 6 and demanded cameras and money
at gun point.
"If we don't get any money then what is the point of
working here at all, " one bandit shouted after other soldiers suggested the
journalists be allowed to pass. Others were robbing motorcycles delivering fish
to the market.
Many of the soldiers in the area are former KPNLF and ANKI
fighters integrated with their former enemies into the new Royal Armed Forces.
But people say tension is high, regularly deteriorating into gunfights.
Even government military commanders acknowledge that they refuse to
drive many roads without heavy escort. Not because they are afraid of the KR but
because they are being robbed by their own troops.
"If they send me only
ammo and weapons, then I am finished," said newly appointed Siem Reap governor
"They need to send me livestock, bulldozers, rice seed - that
is my real ammunition. To demobilize soldiers, to provide job training... the
real problem is not the KR, it is civic action."