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No way home for KR defectors

No way home for KR defectors

In the jungles of Cambodia's north and west, the mountains of the south, and the

poor rice farming villages that remain under guerrilla control, thousands of Khmer

Rouge fighters wonder whether the future will bring them peace in Cambodia's emerging

new society.

Like soldiers in most wars, it was primarily a matter of fate they ended up on one

side of the front lines rather than the other. And like most soldiers anywhere, they

long for the day that their political leaders and those of the enemy will reconcile

and allow them to return to their families and rice fields.

But despite the Paris peace accords' and UN elections' promise of national reconciliation,

the guns have begun once again to rumble as troops and ammunition head for the front

lines, promising only more death and sadness for those who pay the price for leaders

who cannot agree.

It is unlikely, analysts agree, that peace talks between the new government and the

Khmer Rouge will succeed before new fighting returns in coming weeks.

But thousands of soldiers from all four factions have defied their leaders and abandoned

their units in recent months. For those who remain on the front lines, morale is

low, conditions are squalid, and there is little political will to continue to kill

each other.

But for the Khmer Rouge and their fighters, laying down their arms is fraught with

unique complications and unpleasant choices that often leave them with little alternative

but to continue in the jungle.

More than 1,000 Khmer Rouge soldiers have defected to the government since August.

They say the soldiers in malaria-infested jungles - families and village life often

a distant memory - all know about the government amnesty program to the guerrillas

broadcast over state radio.

But the government's program to encourage the guerrilla's to come over - offering

amnesty and positions in the new army - has been badly mismanaged.

The botched program has been fraught with poor conditions, broken promises, fake

defectors, political indoctrination classes, and corruption scams.

Around 500 KR soldiers have graduated only to return with new uniforms to front lines

on the other side to prepare to fight again. As a result, others still in the jungle

have decided not to defect.

In one of the two government "re-education camps" set up for Khmer Rouge

defectors in recent months, most of the inmates were found by Prime Minister Ranariddh's

senior staff not to be Khmer Rouge after all.

In Russei Keo camp, of 397 alleged former Khmer Rouge, only 37 proved to have actually

been with the faction. The other 360 were former FUNCINPEC or civilians who paid

money to a corrupt ring of generals in exchange for promises of jobs in the new army

and steady salaries.

After being tricked out of between $300 and $1,000 each "they have returned

to their villages but the people of their villages are laughing at them because they

have been cheated," said Col. Sy Khon, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF)

commander of Russey Keo camp.

Former Khmer Rouge fighters in the camps spoke of the difficult decision to leave

their units and come over to the government side.

The overwhelming majority are young men who joined after the Khmer Rouge were overthrown

by the Vietnamese invasion. None cited political disagreements with the Khmer Rouge

as a motive for leaving and most said they were treated well by their commanders

and were proud of what they said was their "patriotic role in defending the

country against a foreign occupation".

"Others want to surrender but are afraid - scared they'll abuse us if we surrender,"

said one KR fighter who defected in October.

"Everyone is afraid they will be treated badly by the new government,"

he said.

At least five cases of maltreatment, including beatings, whippings and other forms

of punishment, have been recorded by human rights activists in the camps.

"I'm tired of fighting. It's time to build the nation," said Major Meas

Phong at Russey Keo camp, who left with 200 of his fighters from Division 616 in

Kompong Thom recently.

"I want to live an ordinary life," he told the Post. "I haven't been

in a house in a long time. I haven't farmed rice in a long time."

But Meas, who joined the KR in 1984, offered no criticism of his faction.

"Our troops don't want to fight in general, but we want to see justice because

there is still a problem with the way power is distributed," he said. "We

want to see that the party that won the election has the power to take over the government."

His commander, Ta Mok, was "harsh but fair" and always gave his troops

enough to eat with sufficient salaries while their commanders shared the troops'


Meas said: "I want to stop being a soldier now and start cultivating rice but

I can't stop and go back to my village because the KR will come and get me."

His predicament is one shared by many in the KR, and others living under government-control

near the war zones, leaving neither option for a normal civilian life. Many guerrillas

come from villages under KR control or influence and, if they do return to their

families, face conscription or worse.

Two executions of KR defectors have been reported in Siem Reap province, according

to sources.

But the government is offering no program allowing defectors to become simple farmers,

safe from political retribution.

Many defectors, and some government sources, agree that life for the average soldier

is often better under the Khmer Rouge than under the government.

On the front lines in Kompong Thom, government soldiers complain of no pay for two

months and say they have no ammunition and insufficient food. Their commanders, they

say, are corrupt and often in Phnom Penh.

Many new government soldiers are former FUNCINPEC troops now under CPP command who

have been asked to fight against the same KR soldiers who were their allies, and

often friends, throughout the 13-year war.

Some Khmer Rouge defectors say many of their colleagues, while wanting to lay down

their arms, do not want to trade one uniform for another and worse living conditions.

Most of the defectors would prefer to join the new government along with their comrades

as part of a general political solution that includes the Khmer Rouge in the new

government and integrates the armies.

"They don't want to continue fighting but they want to be invited to join the

national community with dignity," said one source close to the Khmer Rouge.

"They feel like they played a leading role in bringing about the Paris agreements

and shouldn't be treated as outlaws."

"UNTAC only supported the CPP," said one KR defector.

But many in the government - particularly CPP leaders - have little desire to include

the Khmer Rouge in a political solution and think a return to fighting will result

in many new defections.

"Sihanouk is pushing for national reconciliation but it seems the Hun Sen side

is not ready," said a senior Khmer Rouge official.

"But if the peace talks fail, they will attack us again," he said. "They

have failed twice and they will fail again.

Khmer Rouge officials say government armed forces are disorganized and demoralized

and incapable of doing fundamental damage to their organization.

"I surrendered for two reasons," said Ghun Sophal, a Khmer Rouge fighter

in Kompong Speu. "First, to stop the war and, second, to meet my mother and

family. I have been separated from them since 1985."

He left Kandal to Kompong Speu in 1985 because the CPP and the Vietnamese tried to

force him to fight. When the CPP tried to conscript him again in Kompong Speu he

fled to the jungle and joined the Khmer Rouge.

Like many former SOC, KPNLF and FUNCINPEC soldiers, KR soldiers have slipped back

to their villages if possible and by-passed government transit programs.

Another several hundred KR have joined the government units in their area.

The government, the Post has learned, is planning to devote further substantial resources

to improving its program of encouraging Khmer Rouge defections.

Coordinated from the military's 5th bureau - in charge of psychological warfare -

the government has begun to ask for substantial foreign aid to offer skills- training,

better living conditions, and perhaps offers of land in secure areas where former

soldiers need not worry about political retribution.

According to a diplomat, Washington is considering offering "basic humanitarian

supplies such as medicine and clothing" and "excess road construction equipment

to offer civilian re-employment to defectors".

During his recent meeting with US assistant secretary of state Winston Lord, Prime

Minister Ranariddh requested US funding to improve the program for defectors. Other

governments and aid organizations are being asked to aid a coordinated program which

encourages defections.

Diplomats, who accuse the government of "mishandling the whole defector program

from the beginning", acknowledge that virtually no foreign assistance has been

offered to help the program.

They say once the government discovered the corruption scandal involving fake defectors,

the program was immediately squashed and fraudulent defectors were shipped out without

reintegration into the new army.

Some diplomats are pointing to the successful Thai government amnesty programs that

eradicated the Communist Party of Thailand by the early 1980s.

They outline analogies such as the program being successful after the Chinese government

ceased military, financial and political support to the Thai communists.

But the Thai program was a multi-million dollar program involving rural development

projects, wide-ranging amnesty programs and offers of land to those who returned

to government control. The program was orchestrated by the Thai military.

Some analysts say the KR remain stronger than they are generally given credit for.

"The Khmer Rouge are weak, it is true, "said one diplomat. "But the

government forces are so disorganized, especially in the countryside, that the KR

are strong in the context of Cambodia."


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