Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Morale low on front lines

Morale low on front lines

Morale low on front lines

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.

During a

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

valuable.

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.

"Generally

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

compromise."

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.

In Siem

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.

Last

week, angry soldiers looted the main market in Siem Reap, shooting dead one

trader.

"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

sympathetically.

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.

"But

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.

KR

gunners shell government positions which are only meters from the highway-the

main route for trade and travel for international relief

organizations.

Farmers continue to harvest in pockets of usable land

surrounded by minefields marked by red signs with skulls and warning

messages.

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.

UN and

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

Toan Chhoy.

"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."

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