ABOUT 300 of 1000 government troops dispatched to Battambang province to combat
Khmer Rouge attacks deserted en masse in early February.
military police - supported by heavy machine guns and four armored personnel
carriers - were sent to intercept the deserters.
But, after a stand-off,
they were let free after handing over their guns.
"We are busy fighting
against the KR push. I don't want fighting between my troops and the deserters,"
said Lieutenant General Han Hem.
He gave the order for the deserters to
be left alone, but insisted they surrender their weapons to the military police
"Go now, but don't call yourselves soldiers anymore," Lt Gen Hem
said to the deserters, he told the Post.
The deserters were among Royal
Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) troops sent from Kampong Cham province to Bavel
district, about 40km northwest of Battambang town, following repeated KR raids
Lt Gen Hem said some 300 of them went AWOL, heading down Route 5
toward Phnom Penh.
About 25 heavily-armed military police took up
positions near Krek Kdram, about 30km from Phnom Penh, and a similar number at
Oudong, 10km north.
They were equipped with four armored personnel
carriers, part of a shipment of more than 20 recently purchased by the
government from eastern European countries.
"We are waiting here to
intercept deserters coming to Phnom Penh to disturb security in the capital,"
said Meas Mong Kul, one of the military police near Oudong.
deserters, meanwhile, established illegal checkpoints to stop vehicles and
demand money along large stretches of Route 5.
"Please give me 3000
riel," said deserter Mao Sokha with a smile, pointing his M-16 rifle at a taxi
carrying a Post reporter on Feb 2.
"I am a deserter from Bavel. I have no
money, position and commander. I need the money to buy food and water. I will
not stay here too long."
Sokha complained of water and food shortages
among the RCAF forces in Bavel, and said they had not yet received their
salaries for December.
"I don't understand why I was sent to war without
food and salary."
He was aware that military police were waiting for the
deserters further down the road, saying: "Please tell them to move their
checkpoints out of our way. I will not disturb security in Phnom Penh. I just
want to see the King and show him my problems.
"I am not scared of the
military police [but] I don't want to fight them. If we do that, they will
accuse us of being Khmer Rouge."
Lt Gen Hem confirmed the men had not
been paid for several months.
"Not only them [but] even me, their boss,
did not receive pay. But I do not complain...this is a battlefield, it is not
the same as the city - we have to struggle."
The deserters, he said, "did
not think about their duty, only about money and food".
"I told them not
to leave, that the fighting would be finished soon and if they left, they would
lose their jobs in the army."
But, to prevent a confrontation with the
deserters, he said he decided not to force the issue.
"I just be quiet on
the matter, but I insisted they leave their arms with me."
however, are believed to have been deterred from going on to Phnom Penh after
being warned they would be arrested there.
Meanwhile, United States
Ambassador Charles Twining has raised the issue of "indiscipline on the part of
soldiers" in Battambang province with the Cambodian government.
In a Feb
3 letter to the co-Prime Ministers, he said that American NGO workers had been
frightened by the behaviour of some soldiers.
complain that they are either unpaid or paid only part of their salary, thus
accounting for their aggressiveness toward NGO workers," he wrote.