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Tensions Rising with the Tonle Sap Tide

Tensions Rising with the Tonle Sap Tide

As the end of the UNTAC mandate nears, the UNNOs (United Nations Naval Observers)

continue plying the rushing brown waters of Cambodia's waterways on missions to observe

and monitor all aspects of life on the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers and their tributaries.

The two main rivers of Cambodia flow in opposite directions during the monsoon season;

the Mekong winds south while the Tonle Sap changes direction and flows northwesterly.

The opposite directions these rivers flow are symbolic of the realities of river


These naval observers, officers and enlisted men, are volunteers from Canada, New

Zealand, Britain, with support from Philippine, Chilean and Uruguayan marines and

their indispensable Cambodian interpreters.

In much of northern Cambodia, the tributaries and the banks of the major waterways

are under the control of the Khmer Rouge.

The UNNO fleet consists of inflatable boats, a few landing craft used for resupply

purposes and Volcanos-Russian-made diesel-powered boats that can carry eight with

a Cambodian at the wheel.

The team in Kratie has used the Volcanos for meetings with the Khmer Rouge, a dialogue

that has been going on for several months. In the jungle 35 kilometers north of Kratie,

the Khmer Rouge maintain a shadowy presence. They have a gold mining operation and

200 fighters. In the last several months, the guerrillas have not ventured from their


The naval observers in Kratie, under the command of Capt. "Tug" Wilson,

do not favor any of the factions-but see them all as Cambodians.

The biggest problem on the Mekong is the collection of "taxes" by Khmer

Rouge and government soldiers. As central control of these armies has broken down

after the election, units rely on extortion to maintain their positions along the

Mekong. They collect taxes to allow traffic through their territories. The Khmer

Rouge take rice. The government soldiers prefer cash.

Along the Mekong, extortion is rife as ferries carrying passengers north are stopped

by rifle fire, and soldiers demand several thousand riel to pass government check

points from Kratie to Stung Treng. On a routine river patrol to meet with Capt. Ming,

the Khmer Rouge commander in the area, the UNNOs observe ferries pulled in by government

troops almost every kilometer.

"The captain of this ferry told us that if we stayed with them, he would have

to pay twice as much at the next check point," says Royal Navy Petty Officer

Sandy Jardine.

"There's nothing we can do except observe and report what we see," said

Capt. Wilson.

The Mekong is rising and running too fast for the Russian-made boat to rendezvous

with Capt. Ming. The next time, they will bring a drum of fuel to complete the journey

up the river.

On the Mekong, children run to the bank and wave as the white boat and large blue

flag passes noisily by.

The UNNOs, decked in the camouflage of many nations all wear blue krammas-as do the

Khmer Rouge.

"We wear them to show our support for all Cambodian people," says CPO Keith

Marsh of the Royal New Zealand Navy.

The relationship between the UNNOs and the Khmer Rouge on the Tonle Sap is more frosty.

For the last three months, Lt. Dave Badior, has negotiated through written messages,

to meet with an NADK commander named Sngoon.

It is his forces that are suspected of the killings of ethnic Vietnamese on the Tonle

Sap on the 8th or 9th of July.

After three decomposed bodies were recovered from the river in mid-July, the Civpol

Unit took forensic photographs and began its investigation.

As the Civpol teams discovered who went fishing that day-and who was still missing,

Chilean Marines buried the dead, marking the graves.

"The NADK told the fishing families not to fish on the north bank of the river,

" says Capt. Steve Mclaughlin of the Royal Marines.

"On July 8th, the NADK rounded-up everyone fishing in that area, checked the

boats for weapons, separated the ethnic Vietnamese from the Cambodians, and let the

Cambodians go. We know eight were killed and 16 are missing. They are in the lake,

and will never be found, " he said.

Further up the Tonle Sap, children still wave, but along the tributaries filling

the forest, a child is subtly nudged when his welcome is too enthusiastic. Two British

Marines and Hok, the interpreter approach the boats slowly and talk to the occupants

as thick rain clouds loom over Tonle Sap Lake.

"He said the 'NADK don't bother him, CPAF do not bother him, fishing is poor',"

says Hok.

The village spokesman, surrounded by several children keeps an eye on the storm as

he speaks to Hok.

At dusk, a floating village of 47 boats and more than 100 ethnic Vietnamese families

arrives at the last outpost before the great lake. The convoy's long tail rides the

eddy around the squat house boat flying the U.N. flag.

The boats have come from their temporary moorage near Phnom Penh. They didn't complete

the mass exodus last May.

A government army gunboat escort herds the flock of boats, then beaches itself. The

captain and five men reposition a heavy machine gun, slipping on spent shells that

litter the oily gray deck of the gun boat. It is a diesel- powered vessel from another


The captain says they have been ambushed. The heavy machine gun is missing a piece

of the gas system. It couldn't fire very quickly.

But after they leave, the tugboat skipper disputes the captain's version of events

saying the escort fired on anyone who got too close to the flock of boats. He said

the fee for the escort is $400 per family.

By mid-morning the village should be in the lake. As for Lt. Dave Badior, the meeting

he spent three months putting together has come to nothing. Sngoon has gone into

the forest and will not be coming back, he is told.

The new leader is named Chhan. He appears educated, and he knows the issues. He wants

to be part of the new Cambodian army.

Chann is in control of this unit. Its weapons are clean and it is well deployed through

out the village.

The troops wear pieces of uniforms, and the blue and white checked kramma.

While Lt. Badior is meeting Chhan, UNNO zodiac inflatables hum through the back waters.

The teams all know each other, two outstations listen to the radio net and wait.

A U.N. Special Investigation Team member looking into the murders radios Lt. Badior

asking for his next destination. The call was intercepted by another UNNO, on station.

Lt. Badior doesn't answer. Fishing boats with no women, no children follow the UNNOs'

inflatable boats if they stray within a kilometer of the meeting.

The murders on the Tonle Sap were not discussed. Perhaps there will be other meetings.

As the nature of rivers is fluid, so the situation has changed on the Mekong. An

UNNO from Kratie says he was on a landing craft going up-river when it was ambushed.

A B-40 rocket was fired at the bridge in a hail of gunfire. As the NADK rocketeer

prepared to fire a rocket propelled grenade from the river bank, he was killed by

fire returned from the landing craft. Other NADK were killed and wounded, he said.

For now, all meetings between the NADK and the Naval Observers have been canceled

as the river and the tensions rise.


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