AS regular as clockwork the seasons tick by in Cambodia. The dry is the season for
offensives, running from December through March and into April. It is also the season
for amputations and cremations.
March to May is a season for weddings, holidays and family gatherings, while June
to August is traditionally a time for talking and negotiation as the rains begin.
From August to November it is wet and all things come to a stand-still.
From December it is dry and cooler, yet relationships among Cam-bodia's many military
factions start to get 'offensive' again. The dry also heralds the season for analysts
to try to determine strategic aims, to analyze the battles and assess the results.
Over the past months the aim of the resistance, led by Funcinpec General Nhek Bun
Chhay, has been to maintain, and if possible to expand, the area that his troops
were forced to withdraw to after the Funcinpec defeat by Hun Sen's forces in Phnom
Penh last July.
O'Smach is a timber town nestled tight against the Thai border on the escarpment
above Cambodia's northern plains. Bun Chhay has maintained this small enclave in
order to keep some pressure on the government to accept the return of deposed first
premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh in exchange for a cessation of hostilities.
Fighting in O'Smach and adjacent areas can be considered politically motivated, but
the skirmishes of Samlot in the west, of O'Baichoan in the northwest and of Koh Kong
in the southwest are little related to the politics of resistance and government.
They are mainly local conflicts caused by disputes over lucrative border crossings,
the ownership of logs and logging equipment, or simply local power struggles.
Even if the latest ceasefire is sustained, it will not mean an end to armed conflict
throughout the country. At least some of these 'local conflicts' will continue.
Gains and losses
Notwithstanding that this is the 'offensive' season, it is fair to ask what, if
anything, the government has gained by its assaults against O'Smach? It didn't take
the town, though it reached the escarpment at great cost. It certainly angered Thailand
through occassional misdirected artillery.
It will not easily gain the support of those thousands of Cambodians who had to flee
from their homes to refugee camps in Thailand or other innocent victims of fighting
and shelling around the government army's base in Samrong.
It gained no support from the international community as they tried to determine
why Hun Sen's government was enticing self-exiled politicians to return home on the
one hand, while on the other attacking Fun-cinpec's remaining military forces in
The offensive did gain about 40km of dirt track between Samrong and O'Smach and keep
Nhek Bun Chhay's forces on the back foot. These two gains came at an undisclosed
cost, in dollars, to a cash-strapped economy that can ill afford it and the equally
hushed human cost measured in lives and limbs.
As for Ranariddh's forces, their gains and losses tell a similar tale. It will be
international political pressure and not a robust defence of O'Smach which may see
Ranariddh back facing the electorate.
It is likely that the Funcinpec generals have stretched their local cross-border
relationships to the limits. But their greatest error is to have been seen operating
openly with the Khmer Rouge of Anlong Veng.
It is this issue of associating with "the Khmer Rouge outlaws" that gave
the government the semblance of an excuse for its assaults in the north, and it is
this association which will continue to test the strategic thinkers in the Ranariddh
What of the Khmer Rouge of Anlong Veng? They have been delighted to have the resistance
on their side. They supported Nhek Bun Chhay when necessary, such as in providing
forces to help defend the approaches to O'Smach, but certainly the Khmer Rouge continue
to play no other game but their own.
It is of little surprise that they are not enthusiastic about current ceasefire negotiations,
the results of which, at least on the surface, would return them to their less-than-splendid,
The Japanese Initiative
A ceasefire, a trial in absentia followed by a Royal pardon and a guarantee of
security for the Prince are three of the pillars of the Japanese initiative. The
fourth calls for Ranariddh to cut all ties with the Khmer Rouge.
But how on the ground can Nhek Bun Chhay's forces untangle themselves from Ta Mok's
troops, with whom they've been working with for the past seven months, and be believed?
A recent Post interview with Prince Ranariddh proffered his solution; "a bilateral
commission to monitor the truth that there is no cooperation on the battlefield".
However, in the far-flung reaches of the north the task of such a commission would
appear almost impossible. Apart from superficially checking Ranariddh's forces on
the ground, how could it monitor all radio transmissions, telephones and other means
of liaison and support?
Perhaps with some of these issues in mind, the government's recently announced ceasefire
conditions were stringent. They called for Nhek Bun Chhay's forces to reveal their
current locations, remain in those positions and dismiss Khmer Rouge soldiers from
their ranks. Additionally the resistance was required to reveal troop strengths,
names of soldiers and types and locations of weapons.
Nhek Bun Chhay's response was that he would implement the unilateral ceasefire ordered
by Ranariddh but that he rejected the government's added demands until there was
"agreement on the principle of the integration of his armed forces to their
He also formalized the Ranariddh proposal for a bilateral ad hoc committee "with
the supervision of international observers to supervise the cease-fire, to discuss
the Khmer Rouge problems and the integration of all forces into one RCAF".
Although ASEAN has taken Ranariddh's monitoring suggestion to heart and even requested
the United Nations to participate, given the complexity of the task, it is unlikely
that the international community would want to become involved.
Understandably, Nhek Bun Chhay fears for his own future. He knows that what the government
would like is for all resistance rank-and-file to defect, and for he and his top
leadership to be left out in the cold. It is difficult to imagine Nhek Bun Chhay,
Serey Kosal or any of the resistance generals back in Phnom Penh before the elections.
It is easier to picture them waiting and watching in the wings, under some sort of
stuttering ceasefire which meets the Japanese requirement and perhaps allows, in
time, the return of Ranariddh.
Then there is the problem of the Khmer Rouge. But if no one is prepared to be part
of an internationally supervised ceasefire and bilateral ad hoc committee then surely
everyone will have to accept the Prince's word "that there is no cooperation
[with the Khmer Rouge] on the battlefield".
Given that a guarantee of the Prince's security on his return is not in question,
that would just leave the Royal pardon issue to be resolved. Once resolved, it could
then be said that the conditions of the Japanese proposal have been met.
But lingering questions, especially on the Khmer Rouge issue, would leave the Hun
Sen government with the option of either not accepting the Japanese proposition or
at least delaying Phnom Penh's agreement to a time of their own choosing.
A seasonal wish list
At this time in the dry, a seasonal assessment in simple terms of the wants, or
in some cases the wishes of some of the parties is appropriate.
What the Hun Sen government wants is for Nhek Bun Chhay and the military leadership
of the resistance to stay out of town while their forces defect. They would also
be happy if the Khmer Rouge leadership left; their soldiers can also defect.
What Nhek Bun Chhay wants is for his forces to be reintegrated into RCAF and his
own military leadership to be reinstated. He wants to come back to town.
What the Khmer Rouge want is for Hun Sen and the CPP leadership to leave town. An
assessment of what King Sihanouk and Prince Ranariddh want should wait until they
are back in town.
What the people want is simply peace, once and for all.
And what of the soldier victims of the O'Smach offensive? Most were poorly trained,
and as members of units almost devoid of mine detectors or proper counter-mine training,
suffered dearly against mines and booby traps on territory intimately known by the
defenders of the O'Smach perimeter.
Some were conscripted, and while training schools lay idle, received no formal training
whatsoever. These newly recruited soldiers or conscripts had to learn on the job
how to use hands and sticks to counter mines and booby traps while at the same time
being subjected to the ravages of malaria and other diseases prevalent in the north.
Some perhaps managed to 'escape' to the rear and return to their homes to sleep in
the fields rather than be 'recruited' again. But many so called soldiers, killed
or maimed, joined other innocents - Cambodian men, women and children destined to
be added to the millions of victims of the continuum of Cambodia's seasons.
- (Col David Mead (Ret.) was the Australian Defence Attache in Phnom Penh from
November, 1994 to August, 1997)