A N upsurge in Khmer Rouge banditry in Preah Vihear prior to this rainy season has caused a growing refugee problem in the remote northern province.
Already 10,000 villagers have flocked to the main towns of Phom Kulen and Tbang Meanchey as refugees according to a well-informed source who declined to be named. He fears that the numbers will grow even though the rainy season has dampened down Khmer Rouge activities.
"There is a climate of fear and even if the Khmer Rouge are not around it is causing some people to abandon their homes," said the source.
The Preah Vihear expert, who requested anonymity, said: "KR soldiers are terrorizing villages, extorting money and sometimes killing civilians, perhaps three or four.
"The refugees have sought protection by moving to the major county-towns which are controlled by government soldiers," he said.
The source has been told by villagers that the Khmer Rouge take whatever they can find of value, mostly rice and money. Some said that if they did not cooperate with the guerrillas they feared their homes would be burnt down.
He said KR soldiers control the north of Chom Khsan district, the west of Koulen district, and they have access to Chey Sen district.
This meant they could potentially control eight groups of villages with a population of 18,000 inhabitants, the source added. The entire population of the province is only 90,000.
While the source said the KR figured large in villagers minds because of the sporadic raids, they probably numbered no more than 200-300.
The source denied some reports that KR leaders had set up a field base in the province. He said: "The soldiers only operate in small groups. Leaders tend to want more protection than that."
But he said the government army, facing the KR, is no stronger, but it does have control of all the major towns such as Phom Kulen, Tbang Meanchey and Choam Khsan.
The Preah Vihear expert said there were no major battles in the province involving government troops. Bands of KR numbering about 20 would only choose to ambush government patrols when they outnumbered them two to one, said the source.
He said neither army had the troop strength or the heavy weapons to engage in a major battle, and further that the rainy season hindered organized military activity.
He said Preah Vihear was a very convenient area for the KR to operate and there would be no end to the refugee problems while they were at large.
"All the access roads to the province could easily be controlled by the KR and to the north stands the Thai-border where they can import some weapons."
The expert said much of the western border of Preah Vihear was controlled by the KR army in Siem Reap province .
He added that in the east the Mekong floods prevent any major government attack, and to the South the road to Phnom Penh could easily be cut by a few soldiers.
But the expert said the real problem in the province was handling the refugees in the conflict areas.
He said: "The refugees, after moving to the big towns, are often simply given by authorities plots of crown land near the town which they are supposed to clear to grow crops."
The French relief organization International Action Against Hunger (AICF) was the only one working in the province. But it announced on Aug 21 that it was pulling out its last two expatriate staff. All supplies now have to be flown in because flooding and insecurity has made the roads impassable.
AICF had been distributing rice and seeds to the refugees to enable them to begin planting crops. AICF are reported as saying the expatriate staff were being withdrawn because of increasing Khmer Rouge banditry on villages.