O' SLEK TRAI, Battambang Province- The soldiers of the Cambodian People's Armed Forces'
15th regiment were lazing in the shade or lying in their hammocks at this small outpost
along Route 10 about 55kms west of Battambang when the UN military observers and
Malaysian troops arrived on Feb. 1.
The peacekeepers wanted to check the location of CPAF's frontline positions further
up the road, reportedly only 15kms from Pailin.
The UN's request was denied: the road was too dangerous, too many mines. This was
the same story they always hear, according to Captain Noor of the Malaysian battalion.
With both the NADK and CPAF denying freedom of movement to the UN, peacekeepers admit
to the irony of their role in this contentious area-it's their movements that are
being supervised and controlled by the warring factions, rather than the other way
around as mandated in the Paris Peace Accords.
They try to overcome this by picking up information from local villagers who do move
around the area, some of whom even commute from SOC areas to work in the gem mines
But the UN admits their information is at times limited and assessments are often
made from the sounds of incoming and outgoing artillery. As if to prove the point,
two shells exploded in the distance. "That's the NADK," Captain Noor said.
Within minutes there was a loud retort, followed by three more. CPAF's eight artillery
were stationed just a couple of kilometers back towards Battambang and, from the
proximity of the outgoing fire, were presumed to be the culprits of this most recent
The peacekeepers headed back east quickly and found CPAF soldiers priming shells
for a 130mm artillery piece.
A military observer informed the CPAF commander that he was committing a ceasefire
violation. The commander, looking bemused at the sight of the protesting peacekeeper,
nonchalantly replied that the Khmer Rouge had dropped two shells on CPAF positions
and that he had been ordered to fire six rounds back.
The UN, realizing that there was nothing they could do, decided to leave. But, eager
to display CPAF's commitment to peace to the journalists present, the commander decided
not to fire the other two rounds as ordered, unless CPAF was fired at again. So the
Khmer Rouge took only four rounds in return for their two. And the CPAF unit then
retreated back to their hammocks.
The 130mm field piece has a range of about 27 kms which could allow CPAF to shell
the Pailin area. But the gun was aimed at NADK troop positions to the north of the
faction's jungle headquarters. Apart from this brief artillery exchange, there was
little sign on Feb. 1 of the major offensive that was reported as ongoing by the
Malaysian Sector Commander Colonel Arshad dismissed the news reports. "There
was fighting along the entire front from Bavel south to Treng from the the first
week to the last week in December. There's nothing serious now, just artillery engagements,"
CPAF, however, had gained the upper hand and it looked like they were trying to consolidate
ground, he said. "There is a shift of CPAF units into NADK areas. I told them
that that is a ceasefire violation. NADK have the right to retaliate. That's the
problem, we are trying to avoid the involvement of ground forces," the colonel
SOC spokesman Khieu Kanharith recently threatened that unless the UN set up a buffer
zone or ensured that the Khmer Rouge observed a ceasefire CPAF forces would take
The question is whether they have the capacity to do so. "It's the same question
I ask, whether (CPAF has) the capacity to go for Pailin," Col Arshad stated.
But the sector commander thought CPAF could take the Khmer Rouge stronghold provided
they launched a concerted attack on three fronts, straight from Treng and also down
from Bavel and Kompong Pouy. "The 6th division couldn't do it alone. It would
have to be a concerted effort with the 4th division and the 196th regiment. But if
they want to do an all out offensive, a concerted one, I think they can do it,"
the colonel said.
What was stopping them, he thought, was not the might of the Khmer Rouge. "The
NADK were not able to achieve anything substantial in Bavel, I don't think they could
do it in other areas as well. They have the capacity for harassment, to infiltrate
and cause destruction. They're guerrillas," he said.
The political hurdles, he felt, were more formidable. "It's too big a risk for
(SOC). I think that they are concerned about the reaction from the international
community. It would be a ceasefire violation, an act of blatant aggression,"
In the UN sector commander's view, CPAF was pursuing a policy of "containment,"
they were seeking to encircle the Khmer Rouge zone in order to prevent large NADK
Other observers feel that the State of Cambodia is trying to deconstruct the grounds
for international opposition by appearing to make conciliatory moves such as the
call for a UN brokered buffer zone. As one UN official commented, this idea appears
to be a reasonable request but he stated that there was nothing new about it, it
had been under discussion for months and the NADK had not responded to it favorably.
But the official speculated there may be a deliberate reason why it is being raised
now. SOC, he thought, may be laying the ground for damage control. "If UNTAC
doesn't come through with this offer that sounds reasonable to some people, then
they'll say that once again that UNTAC isn't doing anything. And if they want to
(take Pailin) later on, it will be once again 'UNTAC is letting the murderous, illegal,
uncooperative DK do whatever they want, until we had to take measures of our own',"
the UN official stated.
One worrying aspect of the UN official's view is that it touches on the accusation
that UNTAC has done little or nothing to curb Khmer Rouge aggression. Unaware of
the intricacies of the peacekeepers' mandate, many Cambodians increasingly see UNTAC
as a force that just runs away when trouble starts. And as Cambodia watcher Raoul
Jennar notes, SOC sees a major political advantage, particularly now in the run up
to the election, in presenting itself as the only force capable of defending the
people and protecting them from the Khmer Rouge.
"Hun Sen is sending two clear signals, he's protecting the people and he's doing
the job UNTAC is not," Jennar stated, adding "we will see in the coming
days and weeks more activities that are linked to the electoral campaign."
In addition to any possible electoral gains from pressuring the Khmer Rouge , SOC
may see a further incentive in obstructing or cutting off Khmer Rouge finances gained
through gem concessions. Already, Thai miners in the Pailin area are getting alarmed
at the proximity of conflict. Even without an all out offensive, CPAF now appears
to be in a position where their long range artillery could make gem-mining a rather
The Thai Foreign Ministry appears to have recognized this and has issued a call for
Thai workers to be ready to return home.
"Those who are working in Pailin should keep a close watch on the situation
and must quickly return to Thailand if the fighting intensifies," a ministry
spokesman told the Bangkok Post.
So there are a number of factors that SOC may see as stacked in its favour for an
offensive on Pailin. The only thing they say will prevent them from launching an
attack is the establishment of a buffer zone. But as the UN official suggested, this
appears to be an idea which is being exploited to give false credibility to their
desire for peace while SOC is well aware that the chances of implementing the proposal
As for the concerns of the international community being a barrier, the Khmer Rouge
have repeatedly shown that these can be treated with contempt and dismissed with
impunity. SOC can't have ignored the lesson here.
Against this backdrop, perhaps the Battambang offensive that wasn't an offensive
may finally turn out to be one.