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Nurturing independence for ex-Khmer Rouge fighters

Nurturing independence for ex-Khmer Rouge fighters


United Cambodian Communities is an NGO

best known for its work with amputees in Kampot, giving

them financial independence by teaching them chicken and

duck farming. Peter Sainsbury and Chea

Sotheacheath report on how the group is

progressing now with the former Khmer Rouge.



Kampot locals at work on the community plantation

There is a certain irony in teaching ex-Khmer Rouge

the virtues of farming, and the irony is even greater

when the knowledge comes from the United States and the

funding from the West.


But it is not something that anyone really thinks

about at Chamkar Bei, a village in Kampot province now

home to defectors from Phnom Vor - a group of KR that

were probably best known in the West for the murder of

three tourists, Australian, English and French - in 1994.

For them the Khmer Rouge is in the past and the most

critical issue at the moment is avoiding starvation.

So for UCC there is a double edge to their work -

keeping body and soul together at the same time setting

people up in a sustainable lifestyle for the future so

that, in the words of director Linda McKinney, "no

matter what happens we are not reliant on anyone else for


The base for their latest project is a ten-hectare

farm carved out of the jungle near the base of Phnom Vor.

What was jungle less than a year ago is now a thriving

patch of horticulture complete with buildings and an

irrigation pond all done with local labor, materials and

for less than the cost of a Land- cruiser - $55,000.

Horticulturist BK San said that they try to use no

insecticides or fertilizer, instead they have replaced

them with natural products made from manure, compost and

plant materials.

People working at the center are paid in rice. BK San

says people prefer it to money and, because they use rice

instead of money as currency, the chances of corruption

are dramatically reduced.

BK San was born in Kampot but spent 10 years in the

United States where he trained in horticulture.

He said that he was initially wary of working with

ex-KR fighters and their families but now he spends as

much time as he can there because of the locals'

enthusiasm and committment to the project.

Although the village is comprised mainly of defectors

other people have moved into the area, some to work on

the project.

Ton Phan, 42, had been living in Kampot when he gave

up his farming job to move to Chamkar Bei where he got

work with the UCC.

He said he liked the work because it meant he could

get rice to support his bedridden wife.

"I could not move to work in the city far away

from the village because my wife is very sick," he


"I like my job. Working here is Chit Yeay [close

to the wife]. My wife is staying in bed so I can have

time to pay her visits and take care of her often."

Phan said he preferred to receive his pay in rice

rather than cash. He says rice is more important than

money for his daily life at the moment.

He gets four kilos of rice per day while other workers

opt for $1 per day.

While he was speaking another local tipped his hat and

said: "This NGO has been doing really good work

here. They come to help us from starving."

There was also appreciation of McKinney's work in the

community where she is referred to as Yeay ning moy [the

only grandmother].

Phan said: "There is only one grandmother that

came to help the poor people who live in the remote

jungle area like this."

However Phan now feels worried about his current job

with UCC because he believes they may not want him

because he is not well enough educated and does not know

any foreign language.

McKinney dismissed any suggestion he might lose his

job for those reasons, saying that the whole aim of the

project was to give work to villagers.

Though she did say it would be a "major

success" if he left of his own accord because he had

picked up so many skills, he was too busy farming on his

own land.

The readiness of the community to accept other people

into their village because of the availability of land is

best illustrated by new comer Xio Xi Peng. Peng had been

brought to Kampot along with his three small bulldozers

from mainland China for an excavation contract.

There was a dispute over payment and he was left

stranded in the area with no money and not knowing any

Khmer language. But the village agreed to house him and

now he lives and works among them.

Community leader Chhouk Rin has been delighted with

UCC's work in the area. He said McKinney had recruited

good staff and worked very well with the locals.

"She has good ideas. She helped to teach my

people about agricultural plantations," he said.

"Her staff work very hard and at the moment I am

really happy the UCC are here because the people do not

know the techniques of growing, but we expect they will

be soon be successful."

The philosophy and commitment of the staff is one of

the keys to the UCC success.

BK San said that it was important to become fully

involved in the community to be successful.

"Eat with them, sleep with them, live with

them," he said.

Another key to the success, BK San believes, is the

way they teach the farmers on the job. "I train them

at the same time but they don't know I am training


McKinney echoes the down-to-earth approach, as well as

the commitment to an area and a manageable project.

"We have been very practical and pragmatic,"

she said. "What I think we have been good at is

learning from the students.

"We have lived here a long time and I think our

observations have become more accurate."

In sharp contrast to the community-owned low-cost

project the UCC is running is the village medical centre.

The new government-funded centre is fully furnished,

courtesy of an NGO, but not a single patient has been

treated there nor is likely to be. The Health Ministry

was never notified of the project when it was being

planned so they never allocated staff for it and now say

they haven't the resources to do so. McKinney is pleased

that the locals realize that the success of the UCC

project is to become independent of outside assistance,

either government or NGO.

"Ownership by the community. It is really

starting to catch on that this is a community project. It

is not an NGO project."

The villagers are certain they never want to return to

their old life in the hills and they are equally certain

they have had enough of fighting.

Rin said that he wanted to concentrate on agriculture

now. He did not want to go back to fighting.

"I don't want to hear and to see my country be

torn apart by war again but instead I like would to see

the green plantations growing around Cambodian


Even the local army commander Mau is depressed at the

thought of fighting. He said even the sound of the

Vietnamese artillery school just over the border reminds

him of his loathing of war.

"I feel bored when I hear the canon roar. I hate


He said he had received an order from Kep army

commander to prepare his 140 fighters to be ready for the

military training which makes him suspect trouble is


"Looking at the current political events I am

afraid that the country could have war again."

He said he wished all Cambodian leaders would avoid

disputes that could lead to the country turning again to


The only exception to his pacific stance would be an

invasion by Vietnam.

"I could not be patient if they [Vietnam] invaded

the country. I will attack back even I don't have gun I

will find anything near me and beat them. But if they

come in for business that will be no problem..

We are neighboring people."


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