Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Northwest lines up for war

Northwest lines up for war

Northwest lines up for war

S IEM REAP - If the Hun Sen-led coup de main has shifted the power equation definitively

in Phnom Penh, with senior Funcinpec officials dropping their allegiance to First

Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh like a hot potato, the situation in the northwest

is still up for grabs, although the CPP has been moving in massive troop reinforcements

in an effort to take full control.

In the last six days pro-Ranariddh military units have headed for the bush in preparation

for a new civil war. They still control huge swaths of territory in the northwest

and are ready to fight and die for the right to rule, something their party alleged

repeatedly it was denied since it won the elections in 1993.

Troops loyal to Hun Sen have taken control of Siem Reap town, disarming anyone they

can find loyal to the Prince, and have set up defensive positions around this former

Khmer capital in expectation that those who are willing to resist the coup may attack


As many as 800 CPP troops were trucked to the new front lines west of Siem Reap on

Monday and Tuesday this week. On July 10 an additional 1,600 soldiers were headed

for the provincial capital to bolster the existing forces: 400 from Kampong Thom

and 1,000 from Kampong Cham were headed up Route 6 according to security officials.

An additional 200 marines were allegedly moving toward the area across the lake.

Reports from NGOs in Battambang said that on July 9, 1,000 CPP soldiers were headed

to Sisophon, which was completely controlled by Funcinpec soldiers according to latest


Khmer Rouge guerrillas under the command of Ta Mok and numbering about 100 were reported

to be moving south from Anlong Veng toward the district capital of Svay Leu on July

9 to join the predicted fray.

Fourth Military Region Commander General Khan Savoeun, a Funcinpec loyalist, has

gone underground, leaving his headquarters one kilometer west of Angkor Wat on the

morning of July 6 for points unknown.

The day before his departure Savoeun said: "We know that Hun Sen wants to arrest

me because I contacted the Khmer Rouge because I want to stop the war."

Savoeun, looking exhausted and weak from a recent bout of malaria, said he had met

with several Khmer Rouge generals on the morning of July 5, one of whom had been

responsible for the capture of Pol Pot.

"They will send Pol Pot over immediately if Hun Sen agrees," he said. "Pol

Pot should be kept alive to judge him so that we can see who was responsible for

all the killings. If you kill Pol Pot you lose a lot of evidence."

Savoeun said that he didn't understand why Hun Sen wouldn't agree to let Pol Pot

be turned over.

"I don't understand why Hun Sen wants to keep the Khmer Rouge alive," he


Assessing what the Khmer Rouge wanted, Savoeun said: "As far as I know, they

want to set up a party and run in the elections. As a Khmer I say go ahead because

that stops the war. We should bring them into the political framework. If people

want to vote for them let them do so."

Describing the new political situation Savoeun added: "The Khmer Rouge are not

my enemy anymore; Hun Sen is the enemy. I think there will be more clashes. Yesterday

they [CPP] surrounded my house."

Savoeun said that besides Pol Pot, whom he believes was under house arrest, the Khmer

Rouge in Anlong Veng were still intact under the control of Ta Mok, and had about

3,000 troops in their area, comprising both regular forces and militia.

Prior to the interview with Savoeun, the Post visited RCAF military commanders along

Route 68 in Samrong and Osmach. There were no reports of any defections in recent

months, nor had there been any fighting with the KR.

"We have no problem with the enemy now," said Col Kong Na, the Funcinpec

Division 9 deputy commander at his base in Samrong on July 1, referring to Khmer

Rouge units 20 kms east of the town.

It is likely Gen Savoeun is now somewhere further west of Siem Reap in territory

controlled by Funcinpec, organizing his soldiers for a possible last ditch resistance

to total CPP control of the country.

After Savoeun's departure, his deputy, General Long Serae Roth stayed behind at the

4th Region headquarters with about 300 soldiers under his command.

"It's finished," said Serae Roth on July 6, looking tense and fearing for

his life. "The government has disintegrated. We won't start the fighting, but

if we are attacked we will fight back."

As a final caveat, Serae Roth added: "Tell the other side not to curse on the

radio. It will only make things worse."

On July 7 Serae Roth was given an ultimatum to disarm his troops by Gen. Nou Som,

the Siem Reap governor and senior CPP official in the province.

"We want Funcinpec forces to leave and go back to their bases," Gen Som

said in the early morning of July 7. "The Funcinpec forces must go back to the

jungle, otherwise we will attack them. If they refuse to pull back there will be

fighting. There is no other way."

Som added: "At the moment we are all on our own in Cambodia; we make our own

decisions in the provinces.

"I am authorized at this moment to mobilize all armed forces to clean up the

situation. We are authorized to fight the anarchy as there are many places where

Funcinpec and the Khmer Rouge are cooperating already.

"I can not predict the situation. Funcinpec is in total control of Banteay Meanchey...and

they are fighting alongside the Khmer Rouge. If these people join with the Khmer

Rouge I am afraid they will come to Siem Reap."

The 10am deadline passed without incident, as did another at 3pm.

Sources say that at around 3am on July 8, CPP soldiers advanced on the base. After

a brief skirmish, Serae Roth and his troops broke into small units and fled north

into the jungle. Five CPP soldiers were reportedly wounded during the attack.

At press time Serae Roth's exact whereabouts were unknown. Several of his troops

were reported captured near the Tonle Sap. One report indicated that Serae Roth was

heading for Mongkol Borei, possibly in an attempt to seek refuge in the DNUM area.

With Funcinpec troops cleared from Siem Reap, the CPP is in full control of the city,

maintaining a security perimeter roughly 20 kilometers in all directions.

Route 6 to the east is under CPP control. The road to Kampong Thom is open and traffic

is moving.

To the west, the CPP has set up a command center 25 kms outside of town, several

kms beyond the district center of Pouk at a major bridge on the road.

On July 7 the Post visited what now amounts to a new front line in a war that may

or may not happen, although skirmishes in surrounding villages have started taking


Fighting in Angkor Chum was reported throughout the week with Khmer Rouge elements

who were reportedly dispersed and have now moved into the surrounding jungle areas.

The CPP has moved tanks into the area but the district was described as "heavily


One aid worker in Siem Reap spoken to by telephone on July 10 said: "Funcinpec

has started cooperating with the Khmer Rouge and the government is getting very nervous.

There are reports that the Khmer Rouge are headed towards Siem Reap."

On July 7 the CPP had fortified the frontline on Rt. 6 with over 100 soldiers. While

the situation was quiet the soldiers were tense.

Traffic was open and civilians were proceeding in both directions.

The local commander said that there were reports of fighting in Prey Cheruk further

up the road and advised against traveling east. "If something happens to you

it's not my responsibility," he told the Post.

The road from Pouk to Kralanh was effectively a no-man's land. Militia and regular

RCAF units loyal to both parties were present in most villages along the 40 kms of

rugged road. With all soldiers wearing the same uniforms it was impossible to tell

who was aligned with whom.

Troops seemed confused and totally out of touch with the situation. They had no idea

what they were fighting for except one party against the other.

Said one soldier along the road: "I have no idea what is happening in the district,

in the province, in the capital. I just want to remain neutral. I am loyal to my

commander and will fight when he tells me to."

Motorcycles with heavily armed, ragtag soldiers moved in both directions. Militia

units lolled in hammocks under the noonday sun, aging weapons that looked unusable

at their sides.

One Toyota Corolla, scraping and bumping along the rutted track, was seen heading

east packed with six soldiers, a mortar sticking out the back window, the troops

grinning and waving "hello" as they were passed.

In Prey Cheruk, there was no evidence of any fighting. Soldiers said they were waiting

for orders from their commanders on what to do.

A 70-year-old grandmother in Prey Cheruk was unclear on how many wars she had seen:

"I have seen many wars. Lon Nol fought Pol Pot, Sihanouk fought the Americans,

the Issaraks fought the French, the Americans fought Pol Pot, Pol Pot fought the

Vietnamese. There were more but I can't remember them all."

She added with a beetlenut stained chuckle: "You foreigners can't afford wars,

you don't have enough children. Cambodian families have many kids."

In Kralanh, Funcinpec soldiers from Division 3 had moved south from Srey Snam to

take up control at the key junction where Route 68 meets Route 6.

Sitting in a hastily constructed headquarters, Funcinpec commander General Suos Roth

said he did not know where Gen Savoeun was.

The troops were nervous. They expected to be attacked at any moment.

Roth condemned Hun Sen and the accusations of colluding with the Khmer Rouge.

"All this is propaganda, it is a straight forward coup d'état against

the Prince, and they even used Vietnamese to carry it out. We are waiting for instructions

but we will never surrender. There are no KR fighting with us; it is all a lie to

make the coup," he said.

As of July 9 the Funcinpec unit had set up two artillery pieces and had two tanks

at their disposal. Heavily armed troops with rocket launchers, automatic weapons

and grenades strapped to their chests could be seen all over town.

Shops and the local gas station were closed and barricaded. Villagers looked nervous.

Everyone spoken to said there had not been any fighting.

Kralanh is a key base for any expected Funcinpec resistance. Route 68 heads north

to the Thai border through the towns of Chong Kal, Samrong and then on to Osmach

on the border itself. All of those districts are controlled by Funcinpec from Divisions

3 and 9 as CPP militia had been forcibly disarmed all along the road.

Further west the situation is still unclear.

Aid officials stuck in Sisophon met with General Ko Chien, acting 5th Military Region

commander. Chien reportedly told the officials that an agreement had been struck

between Funcinpec and CPP forces that had the concurrence of Hun Sen.

Chien said he had spoken directly with the Second Prime Minister and that the primary

aim of the agreement was to desist from any fighting between CPP forces and Funcinpec

or troops formerly loyal to the KPNLAF.

Chien himself was a member of the latter, reportedly loyal during the resistance

era to the current Information Minister Ieng Mouly.

However, the status of other military units remains unclear.

RCAF Division 12 headed by General Lay Varak based in Nimith on the Sisophon-Poipet

road was the one prepared to attack Battambang when fighting broke out between the

CPP and Funcinpec last February. They are heavily armed and equipped with long-range

artillery. The newly constituted RCAF Division 15, which is based between Routes

68 and 69, is headed by one-armed former Khmer Rouge General Prum Su. He has controlled

the region for years.

Military analysts speculate that both units will be difficult to convince to lay

down their guns and cut a deal with Hun Sen, preferring instead to join any resistance

efforts. The two divisions may have up to two thousand men under arms.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that in recent weeks reports have

been received by RCAF military intelligence that Khmer Rouge units in northwestern

Preah Vihear province have been moving down to areas they previously controlled in

Kampong Thom province. KR Division 616 knows the area well with most of their soldiers

having been drawn from the area around Sakream.

Will these guerrillas move farther south in an effort to cut Route 6 as they have

done so successfully during previous years?

Even more of a concern, will large numbers of Khmer Rouge from Anlong Veng combine

with remaining Funcinpec units and attempt to coordinate an all-out attack on Siem

Reap in an effort to capture Angkor Wat - the key symbol of Cambodian culture and

national identity - and set up a new government?

Recalling the KR attack on Siem Reap during UNTAC in 1993 when a force of 400 Khmer

Rouge basically walked into the city unopposed from four fronts, one local resident

said: "When it comes to the Khmer Rouge, the amount of guns is irrelevant. It's

what's in the mind that counts. And these soldiers are scared to death of the KR.

If the KR attack, these guys will drop their guns and run for their lives."

For the guys in the jungle, many questions must be currently on their minds.

Peace or justice?

Loyalty to commanders who have provided protection to their kaun chau for many years

or financial expediency based on deals that allow old military units and quasi-warlords

to remain in control of their zones unfettered by the new center in Phnom Penh?

As well, working together with the unforgiving, unforgivable, unforgetting Khmer

Rouge under the total control of an aging, unrepentant Ta Mok?

Even more important, the whereabouts of a now thoroughly embittered Gen Nhek Bun

Chhay - if he's still alive - and his ability to link up with forces in the west?

These are the questions on shaky, makeshift bamboo tables in Cambodia's northwest,

with trigger-happy grunts listening intently to their bosses as they hug their weapons

in hammocks strung around temporary perimeters.

The discussions will go on long into the quiet, malaria-ridden night in remote corners

of the country during the coming days, with lifelong soldiers assessing whether or

not it's worth it to stick it out in the jungle - once again - for an uncertain,

probably unsupported cause.

For those at the top, the execution of Ho Sok doesn't help the debate.

Without question the news of his death has spread far and wide. Every unit has their

radio, which is tuned into nightly like clockwork.

If they chose to face war with a gun in their hands rather than risk a bullet in

the back of the head, need one really be surprised?


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