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
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
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,"
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
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
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."