P AILIN - A column of troops is ready in the compound of Ratanak Sophoan pagoda -
or Kaong Kang pagoda, as the locals call it - where Khmer pop music was dominant
during Hun Sen's visit to Pailin on Oct 22.
But today, Nov 6, the drinking and dancing is replaced by a band of honorary guards
brought in from Phnom Penh to mark the official integration of Pailin troops into
the Royal army.
The time is past noon. Co-Defense Ministers Tea Banh and Tea Chamrath who arrived
with over 130 officials and journalists are having lunch hosted by Ieng Sary. The
stage is still waiting for them.
In a new RCAF uniform, a 415 division soldier is practicing a welcoming salutation
under the instruction of an RCAF officer. The band keeps them company.
"Attention!" A man in an olive-green uniform with a short gun on his right
wrist shouts through a microphone.
"Left turn". Soldiers standing at attention followed the order.
"About face"... and there is confusion as some of the soldiers turn right.
And they laugh among themselves.
After ordering another left turn, the exasperated commander says "sit down".
Pick-up trucks keep bringing RCAF gear and uniforms that were brought on a Russian-made
Column by column, the soldiers receive the gear behind the stage.
"We used to hate this uniform but now we're wearing it without having to go
home first [to get changed]. It'd be great if they give us each a hand gun,"
said a soldier.
The dark green uniforms apparently are too big, however, and the soldiers struggle
to wear them atop their olive green ones.
"Who has the smaller size? Swap with me, mine is too big," one soldier
At around 2 pm, they return to stand in front of the stage. Those who still wear
flip-flops on the front row are replaced with the ones who have new boots. Expressions
on their faces are somewhat a mixture - some seem enthusiastic, some remain indifferent
and just look tough.
Tea Banh, Tea Chamrath, Ieng Sary, Ee Chhean, Sok Pheap and other dignitaries get
on the stage. Everyone stands to attention for the national anthem and hoisting of
the Kingdom's flag. The ceremony proceeds under the rain.
As the flag is raised, one new RCAF soldier, on the first line, tries a salute but
looks around and, worrying he's the only one to raise his hand to his cap, withdraws
it at once.
To the surprise of many, Chhean's speech distributed earlier on to journalists is
not read because it was "too political".
The command of 415 division is transfered to Touch Phary, alias Nhep, who, on behalf
of his men, promises to remain ever RCAF and follow the government's orders.
Tea Banh responds: "Your presence is not a submission nor a defection. The Royal
Government considers this your genuine spirit that must be welcome."
"From today, your identity has changed from being outlaws to that of lawful
RCAF," he says.
Behind the stage, a Khmer Rouge still in the olive-green uniform is counting and
"Five hundred shoes, five hundred jackets! Where are we going to store it?"
Hand-shakes between the ministers and the inductors follow the speeches. A soldier
in the back asked his friends: "Will we get paid after this?"
Of course, he will. But perhaps not very soon.