Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - RCAF using locals to clear dangerous land

RCAF using locals to clear dangerous land

RCAF using locals to clear dangerous land

B ATTAMBANG - One villager died and another was injured in the first casualties of

an army program to allegedly force civilians to clear land along Route 10 near Treng,

a heavily-mined military zone.

Yen Sarouen died as he was cutting grass and bushes under the protection of Royal

Cambodian Armed Forces in Phnom Toul, 2km from Treng village and about 11km from

the RCAF's forward position at Phnom Veng.

The RCAF's use of civilians to clear land - purportedly in a bid to resettle villagers

in the long-contested Treng area, 40km from Battambang town - has outraged NGOs who

have demanded it stop.

Sarouen died Feb 28 when, according to a brother of his who witnessed the explosion,

he was cutting grass around a tree so he could sit down to rest.

A shell exploded when he struck it with his axe. Saroeun, married with five children

and a pregnant wife, later died in the district hospital. Another man suffered shrapnel

wounds.

Since Feb 24, more than 100 villagers from four communes in neighboring Rattanak

Mondul were reported to have been used to cut bushes along both sides of Route 10.

The road has for years been a key point for launching dry season attacks toward the

KR town of Pailin. Treng has switched hands between the KR and RCAF several times;

most of its inhabitants regularly flee the village.

According to Rattanak Mondul deputy chief Prak Song, a request was received on Feb

16 from Defense Chief of Staff Ke Kim Yan for villagers to be sent to work in Treng.

"He said they had to do this work to prepare the resettlement of the villages.

He wants the people to come back to Treng," Song said.

The villagers are paid money and rice to cut down trees along the road, apparently

to prepare to widen the road and reduce the cover available for KR soldiers wanting

to ambush RCAF forces on it.

Theoretically, RCAF soldiers are demining the area ahead of the villagers, but villagers

say that in practice the danger of mines and unexploded ordinance to them remains.

Several villagers told the Post they had found mines in the area - where Sarouen

died - supposed to have been demined by RCAF.

"I do not trust the soldiers demining. I found anti-tank mines on the land between

them and us," said Hong Roum.

Mon Roen, another villager, said: "As I was working, I cut myself so I went

down to get some treatment. When I came back, I saw a mine at the place I was before."

As well as the danger of mines and bombs, the area is within range of KR shells -

three of which landed nearby two days after the villagers' work began.

Just why the villagers are there, and whether they have been pressured to do the

work by the military, is a matter of dispute.

Commune leaders have asked each family to provide one able person for the work. Those

who provide more are paid more. Each worker gets 2000 riel and two cans of rice per

day for their efforts.

Those involved in the work are refugees who fled the Treng area in the past and have

settled in makeshift huts all along Route 10. The land they are on is not their own,

and they have been promised land, wood to build houses, and security once they resettle

around Treng.

"The commune leader told me I would have to move from this place if I did not

take part in this work," said one villager.

"I would not be here [clearing the land] if it was not an obligation,"

said Kong Sinna.

Hong Roun said he was doing the work both because he felt obliged to and because

he wanted to resettle on the old land he had fled from.

"Here I am not on my own land. It is difficult to grow rice. I want to go back

soon to my own village and stay there. Even if I feel afraid to go there, I want

to find my old land."

Battambang second deputy governor Nam Tung disputed that any pressure had been put

on the villagers.

"All the villagers want to work by themselves in this area," he said. "The

area will belong to the people who have cut the trees."

NGOs, however, are aghast that civilians are being sent into what is a military area,

and say it breaches international humanitarian law.

"This is complete exploitation, blackmailing people on their need for land,"

said Chris Horwood of the Mines Advisory Group (MAG).

He said MAG might reassess its commitment in Battambang province if the situation

was not stopped.

As for MAG helping to demine the area, Horwood said the NGO would not operate in

any area "cleared" by RCAF deminers whose procedures did not meet Cambodian

Mine Action Center (CMAC) standards.

CMAC, meanwhile, is understood to have been asked to demine a 17km stretch of road,

to allow 1341 families to be resettled around Treng. No word on CMAC's response was

available but according to one CMAC adviser, there would be many problems in trying

to meet the request.

Other NGOs say the area is still militarily insecure and villagers should not be

given incentives to go into a fighting zone.

Friedrun Medert, the Phnom Penh-based head of delegation of the International Committee

of the Red Cross - in charge of monitoring abuses of the Geneva conventions - said

civilians in war zones were protected by international law.

"The government has to protect civilians in two different ways - they have to

protect them from attack and they have to protect them from their own will to return

to unsafe areas," she said.

"The widest distance should be preserved between the military and civilians."

The NGO Forum in Phnom Penh has raised the issue with the Ministry of Defence.

Ke Kim Yan, the Defense Chief of Staff who gave the original order to use the villagers,

could not be contacted for comment. Co-Minister of Defence Tea Chamrath said he knew

nothing about the matter except what the NGO Forum had told him.

"Maybe the soldiers point to one place and the civilians are going to another,"

he suggested.

Ly Thuch, chief of cabinet for First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, said

it was just a matter of "days or weeks" before people could resettle in

Treng.

"As soon as our forces are far away from this zone, as soon as the shelling

of the Khmer Rouge is no longer able to reach this zone, we can resettle the villagers

there."

He said the resettlement would allow refugees to be given homes, help prevent the

KR from retaking the area and boost the morale of the military.

"We have to occupy and develop this area as soon as possible," he added.

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