G RUMBLING soldiers are nothing new, but a group taking their grievances to the National
Assembly is unusual. What is even stranger is when a group of irregulars recruited
from the Khmer Rouge show up to demand payment for their help in fighting royalist
On Friday Sept 12, a motley crew of 21 former KR fighters staged a protest across
the street from the Parliament demanding to be paid. They had just arrived in Phnom
Penh from fighting near O'Smach and were sick, tired and hungry. Some of them had
walked for three days from Samrong to Kralanh and bummed rides to the capital.
"We haven't received any money since January," said one, who declined to
be identified. "When we arrived, we did not have any money for rice and we persuaded
each other to go to the National Assembly. We thought that if they didn't give us
money that would be OK, but if they gave us some we would take it."
They were allowed into a meeting room at about 3pm behind the Parliament and offered
tea until their commander Phon Pheap arrived an hour later. National Assembly vice
secretary general Chan Ven gave them 40,000 riels to share.
After a brief meeting with Pheap they were taken to the Division 1 base at Boon Phnum.
"Once we got back to the camp and ate," the soldier recalled later, "the
money was finished."
He and nine of his comrades now live in a small house next to the Pochentong railway
station. "We just help each other... share cigarettes," said the house
Swinging in hammocks, they stare out at the train tracks and ponder their fate. "I
don't know. It's boring to stay in this hammock. I want to go out," said a younger
soldier. "The rice is already cooked and we keep staring at the cook with nothing
They earn a meager amount of food by unloading wood from the trains from Battambang.
"We have never done this type of work before. Now we are sick with malaria and
can't work hard," he said.
The problem is that they are not registered with the army. "We were supposed
to be integrated into Division 1, the Jungle Division, but haven't been," he
said. "We are not really soldiers, but in action we look like the real army
- we go to fight. High-ranking officers have not integrated us yet. They're late."
They place the blame squarely on their chief Phon Pheap, a former KR guerrilla who
- depending on whom you listen to - is either a former Pol Pot special forces commander
or a cow stealer and womanizer.
Pheap rose to prominence in Phnom Penh with a series of press conferences, organized
by Hun Sen aides, shortly before the July military action by the CPP against Funcinpec.
Pheap claimed he had been a special guerrilla commander sent by Pol Pot to infiltrate
Phnom Penh and join up with Funcinpec General Nhek Bun Chhay's forces. His allegations
were cited by the CPP, before and after the ouster of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, as
proof of Ranariddh's alleged conspiracy to bring KR into Phnom Penh.
In response to Pheap's claims, controversial Battambang deputy governor Serey Kosal
organized a press conference of former KR commanders on July 4 - the day before the
fighting in Phnom Penh begun - who painted a very different picture of Pheap.
They said he was a former low-ranking guerrilla - far too young and too inexperienced
to ever be allowed close to Pol Pot - who had consistently been in trouble with the
KR authorities in Samlot and Pailin over the years.
In the lengthy press conference, six former guerrillas including Kao Ream and Chea
Chon took turns telling stories about Pheap's exploits in the KR, accusing him of
stealing cars and cows, not following orders and chasing women. "He claims he
was in charge of 500 troops - maybe it was 500 taxi girls," one said. "I
arrested him once after he did bad things with my granddaughter," another, older
former KR recounted.
Now - adding to the long catalogue of his alleged sins - Pheap is accused of pocketing
the money given to him for his troops who fought at O'Smach.
"I know the money was given to us, but it did not go to the low-ranking hands,"
charged one of the group who protested at the National Assembly. "It went to
our commander Phon Pheap. He has it, but we don't."
Pheap vehemently denied that he misappropriated funds. "Who accuses me of stealing
come and take an oath with me. I carry magic and it is not good for me to swear [if
I lie]." Alluding that something bad would happen to him if he did not tell
the truth, he added: "If we take an oath, we can see what happens in black and
He maintained that he had given each soldier a total of two million riels and 500
baht. "I also gave them one cow and two pigs for a party," he said. "They
eventually stole nearly every animal in the village."
Interviewed a week after the demonstration in a Calmette hospital bed puffing 555
cigarettes, Pheap said that he was instructed by a superior not to speak to the press
because he was not well. "He is afraid I will say something wrong before I recover,"
he said, adding that he had been sick for a very long time.
"I have been sick ever since I drank bad water with 400 other KR soldiers in
1980. We had been marching through the forest for a long time fighting the Vietnamese
and were very thirsty. We saw a small lake and drank from it. We all became disoriented
after that and never recovered completely."
The protesters, meanwhile, recounted a sorry tale of poverty and manipulation from
both sides of Cambodia's political struggle since they "defected" earlier
They said they were part of a group of 113 hardline KR recruited by Nhek Bun Chhay
in January to serve as bodyguards for Prince Ranariddh. They came from Samlot, Sre
Ambel, Koh Kong and Anlong Veng. "We didn't receive any money from Nhek Bun
Chhay either," recalled another soldier. "Since we left the Khmer Rouge
we haven't been given any money."
Between June 24-26, they left Bun Chhay's Tang Krasang compound in Phnom Penh and
defected to Phon Pheap and Hun Sen. "The reason we escaped was to stop fighting.
When we were with Nhek Bun Chhay, they were training us to fight - that's why we
They enjoyed about a week of peace and were ordered to take up arms in the CPP action
against Funcinpec. "We were first sent to confront Nhek Bun Chhay," one
soldier said. "We were fighting in Toek Thla market and near Kossamak hospital.
Later the army came in to help us from the provinces."
He denied that his troops were involved in systematic looting after the fighting.
"We didn't want to steal the people's property. We just grabbed one or two motos,"
he said. "Our commander did not steal. He was waiting for a gift."
The men said that they were then dispatched to O'Smach and told they would receive
money later. "They gave us ammunition and a gun and told us to go there,"
he recalled "We never received a single riel."
He recalled that they ate well at first, but practically starved when they were deployed
to the front. "Sometimes we had canned fish, but sometimes we only had salt
to eat," he said. "Sometimes there wasn't even salt! When one of our men
was killed, he still had hard rice that he was chewing in his mouth."
With more fatalism than bitterness, he broke out into spontaneous laughter when describing
how pathetic their lot in life is. "We just follow orders. We are eagerly looking
for a response from our commander where we are going to go and what unit we are going
to be integrated into," he said. "Maybe Pheap is angry with us. We are
not sure, but we are still under his command."
Pheap maintained that he could not be held responsible for those who decided not
to live in his camp, calling them "anarchy troops".
Surprisingly, none of the men said that they want to stop soldiering. "We have
no problem with fighting. We will go wherever - Anlong Veng OK - but we have families
and need to eat rice," said the eldest of the group. "My wife cannot eat
chaff, which I don't have enough money for anyway. We will wait for another 15 days.
If there is no result, we will go home, but I am afraid my wife will kick me because
I have no money."