BANTEAY MEANCHEY - With forces clashing in Samlot to the south and in O'Smach to
the east, residents here fear that history will repeat itself and Cambodia's newest
round of fighting will spread to their doorsteps.
Pitched battles would only be the latest of the woes to beset this northwestern province
since July, however. Old friends are fighting each other, local boys are coming home
from the frontlines with malaria, business is down, NGO projects have been canceled,
crime is up, and a popular election candidate is still in self-exile, according to
Colonel Sam Sophath, chief of staff of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Division
7, based in Thmar Puok district, said: "We sent 500 troops to fight in O'Smach,
and most of them had malaria when they came back."
Now, his soldiers are spread throughout the district and along the Thai border and
Sophath believes they will clash with anti-government resistance forces "before
For Sophath, he and his forces are facing off against old comrades in an area long
considered a stronghold for non-CPP political parties and military. He, like many
other military chiefs in Thmar Puok, was a Khmer People's National Liberation Armed
Forces (KPNLAF) soldier in the 1980s.
Sophath said he has known Funcinpec resistance commander Nhek Bun Chhay since their
childhood days. Before the July fighting, Bun Chhay had just built himself a new
house directly across the road from the Div 7 headquarters.
"We find it difficult to fight with Nhek Bun Chhay," he acknowledges, "but...we
must respect [the orders of] RCAF".
Personally, however, Sophath indicated disillusionment with this round of fighting.
"The war is not for people's lives and national rebuilding. It is just for power
for the leaders themselves, so we are not interested in the war."
He said he did not want to defect to the resistance as did another old friend, former
KPNLAF colleague and RCAF Div 12 commander Lay Vireak, because he does not want the
war to escalate any further.
Civilians in the district are very worried about such an escalation. Vendors in Bang
Trakoeun market, on the Thai border, said they have not dared to purchase more stock
since July. In the last few weeks, rumors about imminent fighting have prompted residents
to pack up their belongings in readiness for an attack.
Chantha, 38, has been a video vendor at the bustling border market since 1991.
"Before, my store and my house were destroyed by Khmer Rouge fighting with the
government," she said, adding that the lack of concrete buildings in the bustling
market town was due to peoples' fears they would have to again abandon their property
to warring factions.
Fighting briefly erupted in several parts of Banteay Meanchey in late July but -
with several key former KPNLAF commanders choosing to side with the Phnom Penh government
- resistance forces were quickly routed from the province.
Now, with reports that the resistance has launched efforts to recapture the former
KPNLAF base of O'Baichoan southwest of Thmar Puok, more fighting seems likely.
For local people, the situation has already affected the province's economy. One
significant casualty was a $9-10 million road project being run by the NGO CARE.
A victim of the freeze in United States aid because of the July events, the project
was "stopped overnight", according to Garvin O'Keeffe, the former project
"Obviously the infrastructure will deteriorate quickly. No one can replace it,
no one has that kind of money," he said, adding that a CARE environmental project
was also shelved.
Local businesses are also hurting. In the past, many traders traveling to O'Smach
used to pass through Banteay Chhmar village, about 70km southwest of the resistance
stronghold, according to Pav Rim, a noodle seller.
"I used to make 800 to 900 baht [80,000-90,000 riels] a day, now the market
is so quiet I make only 150 [15,000 riels]," she said.
One Sisophon resident estimated that cargo truck convoys between the Thai border
and Battambang were down by 50%. "Since July, everything has gone down very
much," he said.
With the economic downturn, crime has increased, according to residents. "After
the 5 and 6 July fighting, human rights violations in Banteay Meanchey province decreased
compared to last year. But crime is increasing," Koy Phalla, provincial head
of the Cambodian Human Rights Association (ADHOC), attested.
The biggest problem for the local economy is unemployment, CARE's O'Keeffe said,
"especially for those who work for NGOs. There is less programming now ... I
don't expect any change until there are satisfactory elections".
Noodle seller Pav Rim said she was too worried about feeding her family now to think
about politics. However, video vendor Chantha estimated that 90% of the province's
vote would go to the King or self-exiled First Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh in
the upcoming elections.
"We want all the parties to come back and participate," she said.
An NGO worker in Sisophon, the Banteay Meanchey provincial capital, agreed that the
area was staunchly Royalist. When asked if the Funcinpec vote might transfer to a
mooted new party - without the leadership of Royal family members - the worker was
"The other Funcinpec members are not well known, they are from other places."
Yet without Ranariddh and other self-exiled politicians, the worker suggested that
voters would have no palatable choices.
"People here talk about Hun Sen, that he is very bad, but only privately. If
elections are held now, with only Hun Sen, they will be one hundred percent not fair.
If we have Ranariddh, Sam Rainsy, etcetera, then they will be more fair - but still
not one hundred percent."
Col Sam Sophath, meanwhile, is not optimistic about the future. "I don't know
how to stop the fighting, it is up to the politicians... The fighting is involved
with political problems. If they cannot solve the problems, they cannot have an election."