Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Power, money and the politics of peace

Power, money and the politics of peace

Power, money and the politics of peace

Four months after the Khmer Rouge breakaway formally defected, the spoils of peace

are starkly mixed for the former rebels. Claudia Rizzi, who traveled the trails

between Malai, Pailin and Samlot, looks at the political and economic lines in the

former KR zones.

LAST November 6, when the Cambodian government's flag was officially raised above

the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, it was hailed as a harbinger of a new era of

peace, prosperity and national reconciliation.

Today, hundreds of government flags dot the horizon of the former "Liberated

Zone," but other - more tangible - peace dividends have not been meted out as

readily and evenly.

From Phnom Malai to Samlot, poverty and prosperity seem to run along precise political

lines which stretch from Phnom Penh, as the two coalition parties vie for influence.

In the web of shifting political alliances, KR defectors with the most to offer -

and the most reluctant to formally choose sides - are profiting the most.

Taking a careful middle line between the two government partners, the historic KR

powerhouses of Pailin and Phnom Malai have been able to retain their economic might.

Today, they are boomtowns, still controlling their own purse strings and to a large

extent financing their own prosperity. Helped by a compliant Funcinpec and CPP -

both loathe to antagonise or drive away potential allies - new schools and infrastructure

have been the fruits of peace.

The stakes are so high that some international donors are beginning to fly their

own flags on aid projects to the regions. The United States - believing that open

access is the best way to break down lingering barriers - can hardly wait to build

a road from Battambang to Pailin.

But most other donors are so far taking a more wait-and-see approach to assisting

the former KR.

Other districts of the former "Liberated Zone" - ironically those who appear

to have already taken sides in the government coalition split - are less fortunate.

Large communities languish forgotten, lacking food, medicine and clean water.

As for the promised peace and reconciliation, relative quiet has indeed returned

to the area for the first time in more then 30 years. But not for all.

Some communes live under a new threat of political violence, as the on-going power

struggle between Funcinpec and CPP spills over in the run-up to commune and general


Last month, the Battambang district of Samlot became the center of an armed rebellion

led by a group of former KR. CPP sources maintain that Funcinpec ignited the rebellion

by attempting to arm a group of disgruntled former guerrillas, in a bid to offset

CPP's strong grip on the area. Funcinpec denies the charges.

Regardless, the situation remains tense, with a small group of heavily-armed rebels

still holed-up in the jungle along the direct road linking Samlot to Pailin.

Perhaps a greater threat to stability could arise from the deteriorating economic

conditions around Samlot. The people of O'Tateak, O'Nonong, Tatok and O'Deum-check,

south-east of Samlot, are in dire straits.

Logging revenues have dwindled following the export ban issued by the central government

last December - which shut the tap on the main source of income for the 8,000 families

living in the district.

In December, say locals, the government provided a two-week window for the export

of logs. The profits were dispersed - around 10,000 Thai baht per family - but there

are grumblings that some was siphoned off. Two weeks wasn't long enough anyway, former

KR say.

These are people who for years have been in the rear of the front-line, their primary

task to maintain supply lines. They are soldiers and porters who, given the forest

and the need to make money, also became lumberjacks. They are not farmers; they don't

even know how, one official claims.

Two weeks ago, a representative of the people's committee of Samlot district delivered

a plea for help addressed to all humanitarian organizations operating in Cambodia.

"Most of the people were soldiers until a few months ago. We need someone to

teach them how to cultivate the land," says a local official in Samlot.

The few existing schools have been closed since Samlot officially defected.

The school in O'Rotkros village - a somewhat more prosperous community 8km south

of Samlot - closed down after the local teacher quit and went into business, no longer

able to make a living.

While Hun Sen and the CPP are building schools in other former KR areas, Samlot -

whose defectors are led by commanders considered to be pro-CPP - seems forgotten.

The reasons are not entirely clear: perhaps it is the recent unrest there, or perhaps

Samlot - in the wider political and military scheme of things - just isn't as important

as elsewhere.

One of the few signs of improvement for the remote area is a new rough dirt road

connecting Samlot to Treng and on to Battambang.

Built by former officers from the KR Corps of Engineers, the six-kilometer stretch

was carved out of the forest in little more than two weeks, with the help of heavy

equipment reportedly brought from Thailand.

According to former Khmer Rouge in Samlot, the original road - Route 10b - was abandoned

in 1989, after the State of Cambodia withdrew its troops to Treng, following a major

KR offensive.

"Unfortunately, the Khmer Rouge commander who was in charge of defending the

old road died before the end of hostilities, leaving more than 700 anti-tank mines

in undisclosed locations," says an RCAF official familiar with the area.

TODAY, perhaps more numerous than the mines on the old road are little signposts

nailed to trees along the new road, delineating new plots of land carved out from

the former KR territory.

Land - as always in Cambodia - seems in demand here. But rather than the former guerrillas

and the families taking fresh land, the new plots have mainly been meted out to high-ranking

RCAF officials, local sources say.

Elsewhere in the former "Liberated Zone", the principle of land reform

has been applied in a more traditional fashion.

Further north, in Pailin, individual ownership of land is now allowed and local authorities

- the former KR - have set up a commission to distribute 'state-owned' land to qualifying

private citizens.

"Each family in Pailin receives a 20 by 50 meter plot, and larger plots are

given to farmers outside the city limits," explains Seng Narin, a long-time

Pailin resident and the deputy commander of the newly established RCAF division 22,

made up of defectors.

At present, there are no plans to provide real estate to outsiders, but owners of

legitimate land titles are permitted to sell to newcomers.

Individual land ownership is not the only novelty for the former revolutionaries

of Pailin.

Enjoying greater freedom, local entrepreneurs have set up a variety of local businesses.

In the middle of town, a 24-hour carpentry shop churns out beds and tables. Down

the road, a sprawling New Market is bustling from 6 am until late in the evening.

Stocked with goods from Thailand and now Battambang, it is a far cry from the modest

trading that took place only a few months ago.

For more entrepreneurial spirits, a quick walk outside of town along a wide and well

kept road leading to the Thai border, leads to the gem mines.

Once the monopoly of large - mostly Thai-owned - firms, gem mines have recently been

opened up to allow individual families to join the treasure hunt.

Today hundreds of people try their luck by hand-sifting through buckets-full of dirt

in the hope of finding precious rubies and sapphires.

Family members - many still clad in their Mao uniforms - disappear into deep holes

to scratch around and pass their finds to relatives waiting above. Selling the gems

to Thai or Khmer traders, they are allowed to keep the profits, they say.

Commercial gem-mining continues unabated. According to local people, the massive

excavators did not stop devouring the beautiful hillsides around Pailin even at the

height of last year's political upheaval.

"Before [the split] eighty-percent of the revenues from Pailin's gem mining

business went to the Angka Leu," says Seng Narin referring to the echelons of

Khmer Rouge hierarchy.

The split of profits these days, and how widely they are distributed, is unclear.

One thing is sure - the Royal Cambodian Government itself is not profiting financially.

Thai businessmen, flanked by their Cambodian counterparts from Phnom Penh and Battambang,

continue to cut deals with local authorities, but local sources agree that Phnom

Penh - or at least its State coffers - have yet to see a share of the revenues.

IT is a similar situation further north in Phnom Malai, where the pace of development

- on the surface at least - seems enough to make any NGO jealous.

Phum Dong, as the inhabited part of Phnom Malai is known, is hardly recognizable

as the sleepy village it was when thrown open to the outside world last September.

At every street corner, concrete is being poured for new buildings which are quickly

replacing the traditional wooden homes.

An international telephone office, also still under construction, is a dual sign

of the times - the end of years of isolation and the promise of new prosperity.

Slowly, people are returning to hamlets, like Khla Ngoap (Dead Tiger), places whose

names are legendary as bloody battlefields in the history of Cambodia's war. From

villages which a year ago were at the frontlines, you can now grab taxis plying the

newly opened road from Phum Dong to Yieng on National Route 5.

These areas are still heavily mined but, again, here are the property signs nailed

on trees claiming the freshly-available land; demining will presumably not be far


Peace may have come to what is now the land of DNUM - the Democratic National Union

Movement of Ieng Sary, based in Pailin and Malai - but it is clear that the former

KR continue to call the shots.

The degree of economic and adminstrative freedom given to DNUM by the government

is indicative of its strength: Pailin and Malai, at the heart of the breakaway KR,

represent the most battle-hardened of the former rebels. For Funcinpec and CPP, both

wooing the breakaway forces, they could be powerful allies - or opponents.

Neither of the coalition partners seems prepared to attempt to strengthen their control

of the regions, and risk driving them into the other party's hands.

In return, DNUM is, officially at least, playing a delicate game of neutrality. While

widely considered to be close to Funcinpec (Sok Pheap, effectively the governor of

Pailin, attended the Funcinpec-led National United Front congress in Phnom Penh last

month), DNUM officials in Pailin insist on their impartiality. Some express dismay

at Sok Pheap's visit to the congress, claiming that it was 'unofficial' and unauthorized.

If DNUM is sticking to a middle ground of Cambodian politics, the lines are already

starkly drawn in the area between Pailin and Malai.

In perhaps a deliberate policy of the CPP, its eyes on the powerful DNUM strongholds,

this middle region is increasingly falling under CPP influence.

Several schools are being built in Kum Rieng and Phnom Proek districts - roughly

halfway between Pailin and Malai - and informed sources say that the funding is from

Hun Sen.

These districts are relatively prosperous, with tapioca and corn grown as the main

cash crops - here a family can fetch up to 50,000 Baht (approx. $2,000) per season

by selling produce on the Thai markets.

North of Phnom Proek, the landscape is starkly different. Barren land extends as

far as the eye can see, against the backdrop of mountains that mark the border with

Thailand. The forests are gone-the result of years of intense exploitation by the

Khmer Rouge leadership.

This is Sampov Loun district - home to the former Khmer Rouge Front 250, an important

military stronghold during the KR time.

In 1993, the family of former KR defense minister Son Sen relocated here from Anlong

Veng. Son Sen's brother, Ny Korn-the former commander of Front 250- still lives in

the district, after surrendering last December.

Here - at the headquarters of former Front 250 - the political colors are today plain

for all to see: CPP signs on the building walls.

Whether the long-term effects of Phnom Penh's politics in this and other former rebel

zones will be positive or otherwise remain to be seen.

In the meantime, some of the negative aspects of life under the Cambodian government

has yet to reach these parts.

Along the roads though much of the former KR territory, there is little sign of the

rogue soldiers and illegal checkpoints which blot the landscape in neighboring RCAF


Instead, the checkpoints are official ones, manned by militia who appear disciplined

and thorough. From their posts, often wearing mismatched KR and RCAF uniforms, they

watch and wait for what's coming their way.


  • Hong Kong firm done buying Coke Cambodia

    Swire Coca-Cola Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Swire Pacific Ltd, on November 25 announced that it had completed the acquisition of The Coca-Cola Co’s bottling business in Cambodia, as part of its ambitions to expand into the Southeast Asian market. Swire Coca-Cola affirmed

  • Cambodia's Bokator now officially in World Heritage List

    UNESCO has officially inscribed Cambodia’s “Kun Lbokator”, commonly known as Bokator, on the World Heritage List, according to Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona in her brief report to Prime Minister Hun Sen on the night of November 29. Her report, which was

  • NagaWorld union leader arrested at airport after Australia trip

    Chhim Sithar, head of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld integrated casino resort, was arrested on November 26 at Phnom Penh International Airport and placed in pre-trial detention after returning from a 12-day trip to Australia. Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge

  • Sub-Decree approves $30M for mine clearance

    The Cambodian government established the ‘Mine-Free Cambodia 2025 Foundation’, and released an initial budget of $30 million. Based on the progress of the foundation in 2023, 2024 and 2025, more funds will be added from the national budget and other sources. In a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen

  • Two senior GDP officials defect to CPP

    Two senior officials of the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) have asked to join the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), after apparently failing to forge a political alliance in the run-up to the 2023 general election. Yang Saing Koma, chairman of the GDP board, and Lek Sothear,

  • Cambodia's poverty cut in half from 2009 to 2019: World Bank report

    A report published by the World Bank on November 28 states that Cambodia’s national poverty rate fell by almost half between 2009 and 2019, but the Covid-19 pandemic recently reversed some of the poverty reduction progress. Cambodia’s poverty rate dropped from 33.8 to 17.8 per cent over the 10