AS a soldier, Suoen Soth was certain he would stay out of harm's way. Apart from
the tattoos across his chest and the amulet around his waist, he had consulted a
kru (teacher) about how to avoid injury and death.
"Whatever you do, do not eat elephant meat" the kru advised him after consulting
the spirits. "If you eat elephant meat, you will lose your protection."
The advice proved reliable. Despite participating in at least ten battles, Suoen
Soth survived without so much as a scratch.
"But one day at Tatom, in Siem Reap province, my friends shot an elephant,"
he said. "I was so hungry, I ate some of the meat. The next day I stepped on
a land mine.
"It was terrible. At first, I could hear and feel nothing, but then the pain
came. I hurt all over - even my right foot hurt, although it was no longer there.
"After the amputation, I realized I was going to suffer my whole life. I felt
pity for my wife and children because I realized I would never be able to support
them well, and I cursed the Chinese and the Soviet Union for making land-mines.
"I thought it would be better for me if I was dead. I began to think about how
to kill myself," Soth added.
Ever since that day in 1984, Soth's life has been a struggle for survival.
His thoughts often return to the option of suicide. One of his three children died
of disease and malnutrition. As a handicapped mine victim, he is unable to work and
is all but ostracized by his community at Oudong in Kompong Speu.
"The chief of my village gave rice to people who would help build a road but
I could not work as well as the others, so I got less rice.
"Almost everyone can find work, but not me. I wanted to help build a school,
but the villagers wouldn't let me because I have only one leg. I survive by planting
lemon grass and sweet potatoes.
"But it's very difficult. I feel rejected and frustrated," he said.
As a wounded veteran, Soth is entitled to a monthly allowance of around 30,000 riel
($12) a month from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor and Veterans Affairs (SALVA).
But he must spend about 15,000 riel ($6) for the round trip to Kompong Speu town
and home again, in order to collect his money. And more often than not, the money
is not there.
During the 11 months from November 1994, according to Soth, he received nothing and
is still waiting for back pay. From October 1995 until the beginning of this year,
he received only some of his monthly allowance.
In January, to save money on the journey to Kompong Speu, he asked SALVA officials
at Kompong Speu for a three-month advance.
"They said OK but they took about 35,000 riel ($14) for putting the money up-front.
They said I could have the money for a whole year, but that if I took it, they wanted
half as a commission," Soth said.
He is not alone in his frustration with the system. Four amputees who spoke to the
Post at Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Center, said they were wounded in action but
had never received a pension.
Leng Srouch, 26, who said he stepped on a land mine in Kampot in 1988, said he was
entitled to a pension of 60,000 riels ($24) a month, but had to sell his pension
booklet to get some money quickly.
"Eight years ago, I sold my booklet for 300,000 riel ($115) because my parents
and I were sick and we needed money. Now I cannot get my pension booklet back because
the person who bought it from me lives in another part of Kampot," he said.
Under-secretary of state for SALVA Hun Ly Huot, an ex-Brigadier General in the Royal
Sihanoukist Army, said that despite his Ministry's best efforts, the practice of
hoarding disabled vets' pension booklets is still common in Cambodia.
He said that many veterans find themselves in such dire straits, they have little
option but to sell access to their benefits.
The difficulty in picking out those who take advantage of the system is the fact
that veterans are able to send someone else to collect their monthly disbursements.
"Some abusers will buy as many as 100 pension booklets," Huot said. "It
is hard to identify genuine claimants from impostors, because the abusers can say
they were sent by a disabled friend who is too sick to collect his [money]...
Back at Kien Khleang Rehabilitation Center, Ky Kimchea and Sea Tina both said they
were policemen from Kompong Thom who were still entitled to draw their monthly government
salary of 35,000 riels ($13).
But they said they had not bothered to claim the money because they would have to
pay a middleman 300,000 riel each to have their files transferred to SALVA.
But Hun Ly Huot dismisses any allegation of corruption.
"The Ministries of Defense and Interior are first responsible for the complete
recovery of veterans from injuries they have sustained in the line-of-duty,"
"Once they have been rehabilitated, then Defense and Interior automatically
send their dossiers to us."
According to Huot, his Ministry is responsible for nearly 18,000 veterans who are
eligible for pension payments. He is the first to admit that his mission is an especially
"The pension budget we have been allocated is far from sufficient," he
said, pointing to a table of figures pinned to the wall next to a giant map of Cambodia.
The number 1,309,092,115 denotes the current monthly outlay in riels which has been
budgeted nationally for disabled veterans.
By western standards, it is a pittance - just over half a million dollars, or about
$30 per person, depending on the extent of disability.
Even then, not all soldiers injured in Cambodia's long history of war are eligible
At Kien Khleang, Ngim Phec, 43, related how in 1971, at the age of 18, she was cut-down
by a bullet fired from an AK-47, when fighting for then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk's
She said she had never received a penny for her disability.
Such pensions, as it turns out, are reserved only for those veterans who served in
the armies of the country's various factions since 1979, a point on which Huot withholds
Huot holds an honorary doctorate in the pain and horrors of war.
His dead man's hands are a testimony to that. They are large in proportion to his
squat frame. Their backs bare scars which seem to have been caused by scalds. The
fingers are flat and crooked, the nails black-and-blue at the tips.
These smashed, sallow-looking hands belong to a person who has known death face-on,
but has come back to the realm of the living.
This point is driven home as the interview draws to a close. When Huot stands to
say good-bye, the enormity and complexity of disability in Cambodia is made all the
The ex-Brigadier General has no legs. Huot's real ones were blown off somewhere along
the Thai border in 1993, as he tried to pave the road to free and fair elections
in a Cambodia in search of peace.
(Additional reporting: Ky Sok Lim)