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The tangled roots of the Samlot rebellion

The tangled roots of the Samlot rebellion

W HEN somebody asks why people are fighting in Samlot it is generally safe to say

it is about money and little else. This time people are not so sure.

The isolated southern district of Battambang is rich in timber, and Thai logging

companies across the border are steady customers. Whoever controls Samlot has the

first dip into the more than $5 million a year the trade generates.

The reasons Iem Phan and Ta Muth switched sides from the CPP to the Funcinpec resistance

on Aug 8 were either economic, political or both - depending on the source.

Villagers fleeing the fighting claimed that revenues from logging concessions paid

by Thai companies did not make it into the right hands.

"There was a quarrel about money divided unequally to the civilians in the district,"

said a displaced villager from Samlot town. "Iem Phan planned to distribute

the money among the people, but some officials below and above him disagreed. The

fighting started when the commanders who couldn't get the money escaped to the government

side."

Samlot District Chief Phan Sophal disagreed, saying that the motives were political.

"This is not a quarrel between people in Samlot. Anlong Veng Khmer Rouge and

Nhek Bun Chhay troops came to make the commanders fight each other," he said

in an improvised shelter in Treng.

He recalled that the fighting erupted in three of the district's six communes Aug

12, shortly after Iem Phan and Ta Muth met with hardline KR and Funcinpec resistance

leaders. "After the top generals from Anlong Veng and O'Smach surveyed support,

the commanders attacked the government," he said. "The story about the

money is to hide the political problem."

Thai logging companies paid the so-called "Front 909 Committee" 170m baht

(about $5m) this year for concessions to cut and export logs, according to Sophal.

"We gave 10,000 baht to each family in the district," he said. "Everybody

is expected to help cut the logs into sections. The Thais come to get the wood with

their trucks."

The district chief charged that Ta Muth owed the committee B20m that it would have

to repay the Thai concessionaire. He argued that the renegades had no financial reason

to be unhappy.

He claimed that Phan's loyalties to Hun Sen never ran very deep and had planned on

a split long before the concession fee was distributed. "When the fighting started,

Iem Phan announced that he had never trusted the CPP and had hid arms and ammunition

in the forest over the past year," he said.

He argued that Phan and Muth were unreformed hardliners with a penchant for nostalgia.

"They are turning the way back to Democratic Kampuchea," he charged.

Phan and Muth gained notoriety in July last year by leading a failed invasion of

Pailin, after Ieng Sary and his followers broke away from the hardline KR in Anlong

Veng.

Both were re-educated for two months in detention in Pailin on the importance of

peace and national reconciliation. When Phan was allowed back to deliver the message

to his comrades in Samlot he broke from Sary and aligned himself with the CPP.

Ta Muth reportedly escaped from house arrest and fled northward to Front 250, between

Pailin and Malai.

The pair were wooed to CPP's embrace by Keo Pong, another former guerrilla close

to Hun Sen. Their relationship with CPP lasted, at least on the surface, until Aug

8 this year, when they 'defected' again.

They rekindled the name of their former KR command - Front 909 - donned their old

olive-green guerrilla uniforms again and allied themselves with the Funcinpec resistance.

Ieng Sary, interviewed last week, argued that the pair's alliance with the CPP was

initially a marriage of convenience that went sour for both economic and political

reasons. "We knew previously that the troops in Samlot did not clearly break

away from Anlong Veng," he said.

"We know there are two main problems. The first is economic ... and the second

is a political problem," he said. "The joining of Anlong Veng troops and

Funcinpec troops makes it become a political problem. Resistance troops tell us to

be careful - because we might lose our DNUM [Democratic National Union Movement]."

He surmised that Iem Phan was not given as much money as he expected for joining

the CPP. "As I know, the money from logs was a lot and the government side took

an amount and Phan got a small amount. That made the events happen," he said

"That doesn't mean that the government [took the money], but a person acting

on behalf of the government did."

After Phan announced his defection from the CPP, he reportedly said that the government

side had taken all of the money. "He said it was B750m, but the [concession

income] was less than that previously," said Sary. "I do not know who took

this money."

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