T WENTY villagers from Sneong commune were captured by the Royal Army and held hostage for several days in Battambang military headquarters in one of the worst instances of conscription abuse documented in the country.
Phnom Penh-based information officers at Licadho, the Cambodian League for the defense of human rights, are compiling a report on the incident to be sent to governments in the EU and the United Nations headquarters in New York.
The villagers, while praying in a Buddhist temple, were forced by soldiers at gunpoint onto military trucks and then transported to the Battambang Operation Region headquarters.
They were kept there for several days and then sent off to fight the advancing Khmer Rouge army unless families paid bribes for their release to the Battambang generals.
At 7 am on April 19 elements of Regiments 4 and 96 of the Royal Army commanded by Lieutenant General Phuey arrived in military trucks in Sneong, a rural commune with a population of about 3,000, 23 km from Battambang on Route 10 to Pailin.
Sneong villager Sam Yok (his name has been changed to protect his identity) said: "Two truck loads of about 20 soldiers rolled up. When they found men on the streets they would ask them "Are you in the army?" When the civilians said 'no' the soldiers would then point guns at them and force them onto the trucks."
"The streets quickly deserted and then the soldiers began going to people's houses to find men to conscript.
"They came to my house at 10 am. I knew they wanted to force me to join the army so I ran out the back door so they could not catch me."
Another villager Heng Sophear (not his real name) said: "We were pretty shaken up after the morning. Many villagers decided to go into hiding. Others decided to stay in the commune because of food shortages.
"The people who remained in the commune gathered that night for traditional Buddhist prayer in the pagoda [at about 7:30 pm].
"The soldiers returned at 8 pm, they surprised us, we didn't think they would return after the morning.
"About 15 soldiers surrounded the Pagoda, and began sorting through the crowd to find young men. It was very dark so many men were able to escape. But the soldiers caught about 20 men.
"Some men were released after families paid money to the soldiers, another man was released after he said he was a member of the local Cambodian People's Party."
A captured villager said: "Soldiers pointed their rifles at us and began marching about 10 of us down the road to military trucks waiting about 500 meters from the Pagoda."
"I took my chances, waited for an opportunity and ducked behind a tree and ran for my life into the bushes. I was lucky it was very dark so they couldn't find me."
Reports from the families of the captured men say they were transported to the Battambang Operation Region headquarters - a rectangular compound with about 20 military barracks surrounded by barbed wire fence one km out of the Battambang town center on route 10 to Pailin.
Sophear said: "The men were kept there under guard for a few days and then transported to the battlefield unless family members paid money to the generals for their release.
"Poor families were charged 50,000 riel and wealthy families were charged 100,000 riel.
"The fact that men were taken and held at Battambang military headquarters suggests that many people high-up in the military condone and encourage this practice.
"We live in continual fear of the Lieutenant General Phuey who often threatens us and uses his position to make money.
"In 1993 just before the elections some of his soldiers raided the town and simply took over some of the nicer properties in the district including one with a beautiful orange garden.
Licadho spokesman Ms Pilorge said: "Since January our provincial offices have received an upsurge of complaints about conscription at gunpoint.
"Our workers have approached the generals to try to get them to stop this practice. But the generals never listen to us. They always say they are too busy to listen to us."
There were other reports given to Licadho about school students who were forced to join the army in April at Omal High School on route 10, 10 km from Battambang.
An Omal High School teacher said: "Two of my students were conscripted at gunpoint and I only negotiated their release after talking to someone high-up in the Ministry of Education.
"I was desperate to get them out of the Army because I know it is not a good life."
Such statements are backed up by a report, The Cambodian Dilemma, produced for the NGO Forum by Raoul Jenner. He says: "The scale of losses [of the RCAF in battles with the KR] has forced the Royal Army, like the SOC army did before 1991, to enroll - by force, of course - new recruits. Nothing has changed..
"The battle of Anlong Veng ... was a bloodbath. Hundreds of government soldiers, forced to cross minefields, were put out of action in the first wave of the attack on the entrenched camp.
"Eye-witness accounts and photographs show that the battle was a scene of total carnage.....
"The younger soldiers, who had been forced to enlist, refused to venture onto the minefields. They were shot down. By March 1994, the majority of soldiers had not received their pay since December 1993."