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
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
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
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
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."