Shinichi Asabe Article Collection

The People of Southeast Asia

Cambodia Newborn CambodiaAugust 1994

The American army that came to teach how to remove mines.

At the end of May last year, the constituent National Assembly was formed in Cambodia after the election by a multi-party system held under the supervision of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) for the first time in 21 years. On September 21st the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia was promulgated, and on October 29th the Assembly of the Kingdom approved the new Cabinet ministers. The National Assembly passed a vote of outlawing the Pol Pot’s party on July 5th this year, then six days after the Pot party declared establishment of “the National United Salvation Transitional Government.” The government gave the Khmer Rouge six months’ grace and is waiting for their surrender, but the confrontation between the government and the Khmer Rouge has been still going on around the northwest area.

However, after the Japanese Self-Defense Forces withdrew from Cambodia and the U.N. mission’s director Yasushi Akashi was transferred to former Yugoslavia, I haven’t heard anything about Cambodia at all. Did Cambodia really set sail for peace and recovery so smoothly as to make no news? I decided to visit newly born Cambodia, which will be one year old soon, to see its real state of affairs that I couldn’t see from the piecemeal news.

The military aid from foreign countries

When I was at Narita Airport to go to Phnom Penn via Bangkok, I ran across a newspaper reporter, who was a friend of mine. He said that he was going to Shanghai, where he had been to study Chinese, to collect news materials. “China is now in the market for oil. It is not only the military that employs the southern expansion policy.” “China is rendering aid to the Khmer Rouge to gain over Vietnam to its side. China may think that it can use the Khmer Rouge as ‘pileup pressure’,” he remarked with a meaningful smile.

On the following day, the 9th, a Thai newspaper in English, which I got it on the airplane for Phnom Penn, said that the Pot Party condemned the West strongly, claiming that their military aid has increased the damage in Cambodia, and demanded reparations for the loss in writing.

After I got off the airplane at Pochentog International Airport, which was located in the suburb of Phnom Penn, I went to the Cham Chaw Military Technology Center of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces to see the state of the American military aid. In the center 45 American soldiers were teaching about 1,000 Cambodian soldiers how to drive heavy machines that are needed for construction of roads and bridges as well as how to remove mines with a mine detector.

Major General Kaban Shiamu, the chief of the center, said emphatically, “This military aid is not for war, but for recovery and development.” He stressed that they needed heavy machines to repair the 10,000 km road, and that in order to secure the workers’ safety they needed to remove 800 to 1,000 million mines buried in the ground all over the country. He also said that the workers should be engineers who could counterattack in self-defense when the Khmer Rouge attacked them at work. “We are annoyed at foreign pressmen who simply report this American army’s support as ‘military aid’,” he complained. So I proposed, “I’ll report with some evidential photos that the American army is helping the Cambodian army with the training of engineers.” He guided me to the maneuvering ground. But I was refused to cover the place by an American soldier. “I had a permission of the Defense Ministry to gather materials for an article,” I said, showing him the official documents. But, “You need a permission of the American Embassy,” said the American soldier, as if they had extraterritorial rights. “But this is Cambodia,” I retorted. Then he said, “Please understand where I stand.” Just then, his senior officer roared at us, “Get out! Now! Unless you get out of here, we will not do training. We will change it to sedentary work. There is no use in waiting. Don’t waste your time!” “The Cambodia side cannot help it,” Major General Kaban Shiam signaled to me with his eyes.

Of course, Cambodia is not a colony of the U.S. and there is no treaty between Cambodia and the U.S., such as the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. The first part of Article 53 of the new Constitution of Cambodia provides that the Kingdom of Cambodia shall employ a policy of permanent neutrality and nonalignment. (The middle part omitted) the Kingdom of Cambodia shall prohibit any foreign country from setting a military base within the territory (the latter part omitted), but the latter part of Article 53 provides that the Kingdom of Cambodia shall have a right to receive a military aid in military installations, weapons, ammunition and training the Cambodian soldiers from foreign countries. I think this and ‘being an independent sovereign nation’ in Article 1 cause different interpretations of the Constitution.

The U.S. worked out humanitarian aid as a nucleus of the diplomatic policy toward the Third World at the Population Conference in Cairo. Does the U.S. army concern about the opinion of the right-wing faction of the Republican Party, which insists in U.S. Congress that they should give such a military aid that they can show off their ‘American power’? Or, are they simply nervous, because the military aid of foreign countries provoked the Khmer Rouge to kidnap a foreigner in Kampot? Incidentally, besides the U.S., which is detailing 90 soldiers in total, France detailed 47 soldiers and Australia dispatched two military attaches to render military aid as of August 9th. These industrially advanced countries announced that they offered no arms but military training, perhaps for fear of being involved in a dispute or for reasons of international moral.

The U.S. worked out humanitarian aid as a nucleus of the diplomatic policy toward the Third World at the Population Conference in Cairo. Does the U.S. army concern about the opinion of the right-wing faction of the Republican Party, which insists in U.S. Congress that they should give such a military aid that they can show off their ‘American power’? Or, are they simply nervous, because the military aid of foreign countries provoked the Khmer Rouge to kidnap a foreigner in Kampot? Incidentally, besides the U.S., which is detailing 90 soldiers in total, France detailed 47 soldiers and Australia dispatched two military attaches to render military aid as of August 9th. These industrially advanced countries announced that they offered no arms but military training, perhaps for fear of being involved in a dispute or for reasons of international moral.

Indonesian ammunition aid is well known, but just as I arrived here, I heard the rumor that the vice-minister of the Defense Ministry, Tiah Ban, purchased 100 tanks from Czechoslovakia and new model weapons from North Korea and Asian countries.

Local newspapers

After covering the military affairs, I went to Phnom Penn City. At newsstands they sell newspapers in Chinese which are imported from Thailand or Singapore, to say nothing of those in English. Many of newspapers in Cambodian are published by foreign-owned companies and printed in Thailand. However, the Methea Phon (=homeland) is published by a Cambodian-owned company and going strong. The newspaper made its first appearance on March 18th last year. It is published weekly and numbers only four pages, but still it circulates to almost all the cities in the country. The newspaper boasts a circulation of 4,000. According to Ohm Chandra (34), a reporter, the newspaper gives high priority to 1) the relief of the sufferers in the days of Pot, 2) resistance to colonization and 3) the prevention of corruption in the government. Some newspapers in Cambodia such as Antarakum, Prume Bayon and Sakan, which had criticized the king and the coalition government and urged a line to talk with the Khmer Rouge, were ordered to close by the authorities, and some of their chief editors died a suspicious death.

I accompanied Ohm Chandra to see an example of the problem the newspaper posed. He said he was going to take me to the scene of colonization. But it was not a Singaporean-owned hotel or company, or a Japanese construction site of infrastructure. It was a “Vietnam town” with a barbershop, an electrical appliance store and the like standing side by side. The place was in the best district of the capital of Cambodia. Ohm Chandra was a government official before the election. He said that the former government had been a victim that had to be a puppet of Vietnam submissively, and that Cambodian workers were even now thrown out of work by Vietnamese in their own country. The new immigration law enacted on August 26th is so rigid that it is applied even to Cambodians of Vietnamese descendants who have lived in Cambodia from several generations ago.

If I take a perverse view, I’ll say that this Methea Phon is going strong because it is the establishment press. The Khmer Rouge is not the only one that criticizes the invasion of Vietnam explicitly. Cambodia always fears to be swallowed by its adjacent country so that its fast-growth may be another menace to this country. The immigration law, however, has just come into effect. The degree of the strictness of the regulation will reveal whether the law is just a pose to the Khmer Rouge or whether the government really means it. With such things in mind, I hurried to the Ministry of Finance, where I had an appointment of interview, pushing my way through the rapidly increasing cars and motorbikes.

The Finance Minister Sam Rainsy

I interviewed the Finance Minister Sam Rainsy on the second floor of the Finance Ministry building. There is a rumor that a French enterprise shouldered the burden of reconstruction expenses of the Finance Ministry building in return for the lease on an airplane. Sam Rainsy is a member of the third party, the Buddhist Liberal Party, and he was one of those who opposed the illegalization of the Pol Pot Party on the side of King Sihanouk. “If you oppress the people by force, there will be always repellence. That is, if a village becomes a battlefield, the villagers will be displaced persons, and there will be discontent among draftees.” He is still opposed to ruling by force of arms. He explained the reason. “If we compete with them peacefully, it is obvious which will win. And also the supporters of the Khmer Rouge are victims of corruption and poverty in this society. Sweeping away corruption as well as promoting the development of local areas is the shortest way to solve the problems.

Sam Rainsy continued, “Actually, our biggest enemy is not the Khmer Rouge, but the illness of the country Cambodia itself such as corruption and injustice. You cannot kill a patient to cure his illness. Too much support incurs corruption. So we want you to assist us in sending the experts of economic ethics or accounting to our country, not in the way of money.” Bureaucratic malfeasance is one of the main causes for public works and private investments not to be promoted and for the recovery of Cambodia not to be speeded up.

Sam Rainsy, looking back over the past, remarked on the rehabilitation of the country. “A lot of difficult problems piled up at the start. Since there was no money in the National Treasury, we couldn’t pay a salary to the government workers, and moreover, we couldn’t provide even minimum public services like water supply, electricity, health service and education.” But now, he continued, the big cities become safe and clean, and there is well-organized transportation system. “On top of that, we could curb once triple-digit inflation to 0% inflation. And also we can pay salaries to the policemen and soldiers,” he boasted. And he added, “What makes them possible is that we crack down injustice, increase the revenue by two-and-a-half times and keep the growth rate 3%, and that the people cooperatively restrain consumption.”

I asked him to give me the statistics to reinforce the splendid figures in his statement, but he said, “There are not so many …….” He didn’t give me the “evidence” after all. I understand that the survey of prices and wages is difficult in present Cambodia. I wonder 0% inflation he mentioned may be calculated only on the riel-dollar rate. The exchange rate of 2,400 riels to the dollar is certainly the same as on January this year when I came here. But what can I buy now for 2,400 riels? I went to Oruse Market in Phnom Penh. I could buy 8kg of regular-grade pork before the election, but now I can buy only a tenth of that, 750g. Lee Penh, who runs a noodle shop at the market, said, “The prices of ingredients increase but the customers decrease… I could sell 50 bowls of noodles a day before, but now I can sell only 30 bowls or so. Everyone has fallen hard times.” The salary of a government worker is 20,000 riels to 50,000 riels the same as before. Everyone is eking out his income with a side job. This is just devaluation. Naturally, the citizens have no alternative but to restrain consumption. “Sam Rainsy shores up the riel with U.S. dollars, which are given in aid, and makes the figures balanced,” angrily said a caucus of the People’s Party, the former government party.

Khiev Kanharith, A National Assembly Deputy

On the night of the 9th, I had a chance to talk with Khiev Kanharith, a National Assembly deputy, over our drink. He once was an intelligence minister of the stopgap government. I asked him about the true state of the coup on the night of July 2nd. “The 14 Thais under arrest were reported underground activists who interrupted the telephone service from 8:00 on the night of that day. I trust the Thai government that declared Thailand would recognize this government. I don’t think the Thai government was involved. Maybe they were only mercenary telephone technicians.” Kanharith sometimes cannot say what he wants to say because of his title. A high official, who belonged to the People’s Party as same as Kanharith did, told me his guess. “I think Prince Ranariddh, who cannot usurp the throne or inherit his father’s property, dared give a chance of coup to Prince Chakurapon to exile him from Cambodia. Chakurapon always felt ill at ease in the presence of Ranariddh, who has consolidated his status as the head of the leading party.” There is another guess that a group which insisted on continuing the talks with the Pot Party sought the downfall of the second premier Hun Sen, who tried to carry through the illegalization of the Pot Party.

Anyway, the coup failed in their attempt. The Pot Party was illegalized as Hun Sen had insisted before the election, so that Hun Sen is getting more power in the government. Now that the elimination of the Pot Party became a national policy, King Sihanouk has to side with Hun Sen in order to return home peacefully. So, it is no wonder that Prince Ranariddh, who is on bad terms with his father, suddenly tries to get on closer terms with Sam Rainsy, whose father, a former ambassador in England, was reportedly assassinated by order of Sihanouk. Actually, when I stayed in Phnom Pen, I heard that there might be another coup during Hun Sen’s next traveling abroad. In the middle of June, the two premiers and the Thai premier Chuan agreed that the concessions to export timber should be put in the charge of the Ministry of Defense in financial difficulties. Sam Rainsy ventilated “this secret agreement,” and as a result the backing of world opinion leaned toward Rainsy. The struggle for power among those three is inextricably tangled.

Kanharith revealed the People’s Party’s policy, “If the Pot Party doesn’t surrender in six months, we will set up a new military unit to stop their subversive activities completely. But we will not start a fight.” He added, “The government cannot excise control over trading arms as well as timber and gems on the Thai border. So our anti-Khmer Rouge measure is to squeeze them not only by military force but also legally and financially.” I think this measure is very practical, because the agreement the Cambodian Defense Ministry should export timber to the trader approved by Thai government will undoubtedly squeeze the Pot Party financially. Timber has been the financial resource of the Pot Party guerrillas.

On the other hand, that the premiers and the military alone manage timber of the nation’s natural resource will be an infringement of the New Cambodian Constitution, which prescribes the democratic process of the policies and the protection of the environment. And this became another cause of the delay in the rehabilitation of Cambodia, because the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund put pressure on Cambodia by announcing that they would withdraw the credit security of aid.

To the western front

Although the kidnapping of a foreigner weighed on my mind, I decided to go to the western front. For I knew through the last material-gathering that the Khmer Rouge lurking in Kampot and Kompong Speu counties were half isolated, because the bad road and hazardous jungle hindered the supply route of ammunition and foods from the headquarters on the Thai border. Although the royal government is sensitive to the relationship with foreign countries, they concluded the Khmer Rouge guerrillas there would make hit-and-run attacks or perform subversive activities sporadically, but they would not have a chain of command to expand their territory. In the west, however, the illegalized Khmer Rouge is reportedly stepping up the offensive, which is not reported because there is no foreign victim. In the early morning of the 10th, I headed straight for Battambang on Route 5.

The Khmer Rouge soldiers who surrendered

Passing Kompong Chhnang, I stopped by at the retraining center for the Khmer Rouge soldiers who surrendered. It opened only five days ago. In accordance with the policy of the Defense Ministry that all education centers in the country should be integrated, the center in Phnom Penh moved into here first.

A training building and a dormitory are under construction. Min Measu, a regimental commander, met me at the ruins of a building only whose roof remained. “Unlike before, the present government is democratic and human rights are protected, so they are coming to surrender. I think they have already repented when they surrendered. They are also victims of the Khmer Rouge. They were stirred up and inspired with wrong ideas by the Khmer Rouge,” he said quietly. In the center, they give lessons to the former Khmer Rouge soldiers on P.E., recreation, the human rights, military discipline and tactics, and also train these “enemy soldiers” for the Royal Amy soldiers in three weeks. The 55 soldiers who surrendered and 19 women and children of their families were moved here from Phnom Penh. They have already finished a three-month training course, and now they are on probation to ascertain their volition.

The highest of the soldiers in rank who surrendered, Cheep May (35), a former lieutenant colonel of the 277th Pot Party Independent Regiment, was wearing a uniform of the Royal Army with epaulets. He told me the reason for surrender in the following words. “I believe this government chosen by vote is the government for Cambodian people. If we continue the war, that is to say, Cambodians kill Cambodians, our living standard will never improved.” In April of this year he surrendered together with seven his men, his wife and children to the major general to whom he had written a letter to the effect that he would surrender. I asked about the inside of the Pot Party. “Since capitalism has been also introduced into the Khmer Rouge from 1981, there is disparity in wealth. Some leaders are still communists, but their systems vary depending on time and place.” When I implied that the morale of the Khmer Rouge is getting low because of disorder in their system, “Sure, it is. Same as the Royal Army,” he said candidly, though an instructor was secretly listening to our talk. But May wasn’t reproved.


For fear that anything should happen, we drove at full speed without a stop through Pouthisat State where once in a week the Khmer Rouge attacked trains running on the railroad parallel to the road and villages by the roadside. Before long we saw some shabby huts standing side by side on the shoulder of the road in Battambang, where we were going to stay tonight.

In Ottock Village of Sonkai County, there was a flood rising by about two meters for the first time in three years, Prea Bett (47) evacuated his home to the national road on the raised ground, which was three kilometers away from his village. “Battambang State provided us with this vinyl sheets for the roof. They also rationed out 100kg of rice for four families,” she said with a smile all the time despite of being a flood victim. Reportedly, five states of Cambodia suffered from floods in this rainy season, and about 50,000 people fell victims to the floods. The Red Cross has given emergency aid to sufferers before, but the local administration never took a measure like this before the new government was born. The New Constitution stated the protection of local farmers at every turn, including “… shall propel the economic development of local places, especially, for farmers and handicraftsmen” in Article 61. If I take a shrewd view of it, I could say the policy was adopted to prevent poor farmers from going over to the Khmer Rouge.

Vice-Governor Nam Thun

On the 11th, Vice-Governor Nam Thun explained the present bitter situation contrary to the comfortable morning air. “The Khmer Rouge have altered their tactics after May this year. They set fire to the villages after they attack. In Ratana Mondol County, another about 40,000 people of 8,000 families fell victims to war. The damage got increased, because UNTAC reduced the strength of our army. So, we formed a local army and struck back. But still there are many farmers who cannot come home because mines are laid under the fields.”

Nam Thun gave me his reasons why the Khmer Rouge could continue to attack as follows. 1) The Khmer Rouge have still received aid from abroad even now (he could not mention the country’s name, though). 2) They earn money by the export of gem mined in Pailin that the Khmer Rouge control. 3) The munitions of the government army are in short supply. 4) They run into Thai territory when they are driven into a corner. He added with a chagrined expression, “If Thailand doesn’t sell ammunitions, I’m sure they pass through Thailand. But we cannot obtain proof. Unless Thailand blocks up the border cooperatively, the Royal Army cannot drive out the Khmer Rouge, no matter how strong the army is.”

According to the international news alone, two secret armories of the Khmer Rouge were exposed within the Thai territory at the end of December last year and at the beginning of July this year. Also, it is well known that the markets of gems and timber brought from the regions that are under the Khmer Rouge’s control are scattered along Route 317 in Thailand.

“98 % of the people are against the Khmer Rouge. The remaining 2 %, or supporters, are people who are discontented with their present lives and criminals who committed robbery or murder and ran to the Khmer side for fear of being under arrest. The Khmer Rouge has never taken our concessions in a favorable sense since the Paris Peace Accord. So, there is no alternative but to fight.” Num is a chief of the local government, not a member of armed forces, but still he advocates taking a hard-line policy like this.

To the front

After parting from Num, I headed for the front on Route 10 leading to Pailin. Worrying about financial difficulties and a decline in the military morale, the government laid a scheme of restructuring the military with the aim of reducing the number of soldiers in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces from current 160,000 to 64,000 within three years. On the other hand, the number of the Khmer Rouge soldiers is supposedly 25,000.

The Royal Amy took Pailin, the base of the Khmer Rouge, on March 21st this year. But the Pot Party took it back by storm at the end of April. When we passed the ruins of Ratana Mondol County Office, which was destroyed during the battle at the end of April, I heard the roar of guns fired by the Royal Amy breaking the silence of the rural district. At the artillery position of the Royal Amy, Soviet-made 152mm gun is placed, leveled at the sky with cumulonimbus clouds in the rainy season. “Don’t take a photo of surrounding mountains. Our enemy will find us,” I was warned. The gun ranges 17 kilometers. They fire at Chenan Village 14-15 kilometers to west-southwest of the position. In the village the Khmer Rouge set up the front. They fired 15 times in the past one-month, 4 to 30 shells at a time. They already fired four shells today.

From here, an armed car and a military truck led us. When we arrived at the frontline headquarters, after passing over many big puddles made by explosion of mines, Mat Chara (34), a major general with the 5th Division, met us. He said, “While we were held up in unifying three parties, the Khmer Rouge came at us. So we had to withdraw to Mt. Tumbot 13km away from Battambang.” He added that they had driven the Khmer Rouge back to where the line had been at the time of the election by May 1st. “We don’t have a large-scale operation now. But we can’t stay still. If we don’t do anything, the guerrillas will attack us again.”

The duty of this division is to defend the line. After May the villagers went back to their own villages, but they cannot work fully in their fields for fear of mines that the Khmer Rouge laid again when they withdrew. “Someone steps on a mine every tenth day. We are good at dealing with mines, but we don’t remove mines in the fields, because we are not ordered and also we are too busy to do that. But there are some retired soldiers in the villages and they teach how to remove the mines. So they do it by themselves.”

Ammunition is reportedly in short supply. The Soviet Union and Vietnam did provide it for the army before, but now there is no country to provide it. “If it becomes a long drawn-out war, we will surely be want of ammunition, but it’s the rainy season now, so that we have enough of it at least this year.”

Chara stated positively that there was a good chance for the Khmer Rouge to return to the country in the days of the UNTAC, but there is not better chance than that any more. “If the Royal Amy is organized well and introduces new model weapons, the Khmer Rouge soldiers in the front will dread and surrender. But I think their leaders will never surrender even if we wait for six months, ten years, and more. I can read their psychology,” he confidently predicted the prospect of the war situation. He has confronted the Khmer Rouge for 16 years after he returned in triumph with the Vietnamese army from Preah Vihear in 1979.

I asked him what Cambodia needed most for its recovery. He simply answered, “Peace.” Then, he added that for peace they needed to stop the war first, but to stop the war, they needed more arms. His logic goes that if the war ends, the country will be stable, then the foreign investors will come and lay out their money in Cambodian enterprises, finally Cambodia will become wealthy. When we parted, he added, “You are a journalist, aren’t you? Will you tell the public we don’t need a lot of aid? We rather want them to know who is right and who is wrong.” I think he realizes there is a contradiction in his argument that they fight more battles for peace, so he needs at least moral support of ‘justice.’

The soldiers

At 1:30 in the afternoon, when I was talking with Major General Mat Chara, the Khmer Rouge launched seven rocket bombs at Otakuray Bridge three kilometer ahead of the front headquarters. “It’s dangerous to go ahead of here,” said nonchalantly one of the Royal Army soldiers, who were amusing themselves by card gambling under a big tree, as if bombardment is an everyday affair. “If many, they shell three or four times a day. If few, they shell three times every 10th day.” He explained the frequency of attacks from the Khmer Rouge. He said he was in the noon recess now, but soon he had to go on patrol.

“Aren’t you tired from the war?” I asked the soldiers. The platoon commander Major Pen Nut (32) gave me an exemplary answer, “I am a soldier. My duty is to defend our country.” “He is the only man to think so,” one of his men cracked a joke. Incidentally, the salary for a common soldier is 35,000 riels (about 15 dollars) and that for a platoon commander is 57,000 riels. Military uniforms and meals are supplied, but they have to pay their medicine by themselves including medicine for malaria. Some condemned that the money paid for exported timber was diverted to the military, but to keep the morale of the army high this measure seems to be very practical in this country.

The war refugees

On the way from the front, I saw a bunch of huts in the field along Route 10. While women were getting an evening meal ready, one-legged men were making a coffin. “This morning my nephew died, so we are preparing for his funeral,” said Tetto Saboun (62). When they fled here from Bonanpil Village in Ratana Mondol County at the end of April, his nephew Mei Rai (36) was ill and his wife was in the eighth month of pregnancy. After finding shelter, Mei Rai was hospitalized in Battambang, but he left a week later, because the doctor said his illness was incurable and he didn’t have enough money to receive treatment. Saboun didn’t know the name of Mei’s disease. But according to his explanation about Mei’s symptoms such as yellow eyes and swelled abdomen, I presumed he had hepatitis. Although Article 72 of the new Constitution prescribed that the poor citizen shall get free medical care, there are still many ‘incurable diseases’ in this country where hospital, doctors and medical supplies are all scarce.

Since the Royal Amy pushed back the Khmer Rouge, two third of about 4,000 displaced families went back to their own villages. In the villages, they said, they could cultivate their fields and make charcoal, although there was a risk of stepping on a mine. But there are families who cannot go home and are forced to live a rough life, relying on the rations, such as the Rai family-Mei died and his wife has just given birth to the third child 20 days ago-and a family in which there is an old person. The International Red Cross and the Battambang State distributed 15kg of rice a person, canned fish and salt, but such provisions run out and the people eat only potatoes or greens boiled in a soup.

The Rai family wants to bury Mei’s body in their home village, but they don’t have money to bring his body home. So, tomorrow they will bury him in the grounds of the temple at the place of refuge. The temple kindly allowed them to bury Mei’s body.

The train is passing through the battlefield.

At their destination there are mines and attacks, but they have to go home for their living.

On the morning of the 12th, Battambang Station was enveloped in mist and crowded with people who were waiting for the once-a-day plying train bound for market in Paoy Pet on the Tai border.

Battambam Radio reported yesterday that the train was canceled because of explosion of mines at the several places, but the train is likely to run today.

The train with a Soviet-made diesel-electric engine is composed of ten cars-from the front, three boxcars, four passenger cars and three boxcars. Even in the boxcars there are full of people. Moreover, people are clinging on the roof, to the locomotive, not to mention, to the deck of the passenger cars. Besides those ten cars, there are two open freight cars in front of the locomotive. They are “sacrifice” to protect scanty locomotives from explosion of mines on the railroad laid by the Khmer Rouge. Even on such sacrificed cars there are a lot of people aboard.

The train left at seven sharp to time against “Cambodian schedule” where things were usually 30 minutes behind the appointed time. The train resumed normal service only a day after the railroad track was cut off by mines. I saw their eagerness for the country’s recovery in their attitudes of dealing with the matters. First I got on a rusty passenger car. The passengers in the crowded car welcomed a rare foreign passenger with a smile. One of the passengers, Tooch Pora (20) said, “I’m going to my mother’s house in Mongkol Borei to get rice.” The field where she helps with farm work was desperately damaged by flood. She and her husband have lived on rice produced last year, but the rice ran short. She can get rice from her mother free, but she has to pay 5,000 riels (about two dollars) in total for the transportation fee.

The bike-taxi fares both ways between home and the station are 4,000 riels, a round-trip ticket between Battambang and Mongkol Borei is 1,000 riels. “I like taking a train, because it’s cheap. But if I were rich, I prefer a car,” she said. Her husband works as a porter at Battambang Station to earn money in cash. Today she will get 10 kg of rice, on which she and her husband will live on for one month. Also she said she didn’t want a child because they didn’t have money. They seem to live at subsistence level.

The train clatters along slowly. It doesn’t speed up even after leaving the station. The track is bumpy with several centimeters’ unevenness. It looks as if such errors are acceptable. The locomotive engineer has to run the train very carefully within a speed of 20 kilometers an hour not to run it off the track. Although Pora said she preferred a car, I think a train is more comfortable because a car jolts along so tremendously that I hit my head against the ceiling. As for speed, the average velocity of a train is higher than that of a car, because a car has to stop many times to avoid big holes. A big bus cannot run on Cambodian bumpy roads. If it can run, it cannot carry as many passengers as this. To carry them all, at least 30 buses are needed. I admired this battered old train’s carrying so many people like this. Now I was convinced why the Khmer Rouge attacked it very often.

Ron Sleipo (14) put a big basket on the baggage rack. She said, “I’m going to Sisophon to buy in.” She buys 100kg of sweetsops at the price of 3.5 baht per kilogram and sells them at the price of 4 baht per kilogram. She gets a profit of 50 bahts (about 200 yen), but after deducting lunch expenses and 1,400 riels for the transportation fees to Sisophon and back, she nets only about 100 yen. Ron is a junior high school student and now she is on summer holidays. She wants to be a government worker not a merchant in the future. “Because we don’t have any seed money to start business, and in business we may lose money since prices are not stable. A government worker doesn’t have to worry about such things, ” she has a down-to-earth opinion.

In a compartment for four people, three adults and five children are sitting. The compartment is very lively as if it were a day-care center. The adults are trying to soothe a fretful baby or telling off moving-around naughty boys, but the compartment is always full of laughter. They are the families of Measu Samunan (25) and Soen Yohn (29). “We are going to Paoy Pet to work as a porter at the market. I have a sister there.” Measu is going to do a job of carrying goods of Thai and Cambodian merchants from the market to their trucks at the parking lot. He will earn 10-20 bahts (40~80 yen) a day. He’ll work there for 2 to 30 days. “Because all of my rice was damaged by a flood,” said Measu.

A man in military uniform is watching the families quietly. He is Second Lieutenant Ka Tetto. “My holiday is over and I’m going back to my unit in Sisophon.” He is in the sixth year of the army and he steers a T-54 model tank as a steersman of the17th regiment. On his last holiday in May he fled his house of Phnom Sompuro Village located along Route 10 with his wife to a village near Battambang on account of the aftermath of the battle in Pailin. Yesterday we passed that village on the way to the front. “I hope the war will end soon. If foreign countries give us new-model weapons, we can end this war quickly. I miss my wife,” the young man, who steers an antique tank, said bashfully.

Just then I felt a strong jolt, and I saw an overturned passenger car through the train window. The train jolted because of the warped track. There was a hole on the track made by explosion of a mine, but it was not filled completely, so that the track became warped. At the next station we transferred to the open freight car attached in front of the locomotive. But for worries about mines and attacks, this 360 degrees moving panoramic view would attract many tourists. Pitch Son (35) said, “I know this car is a protection against mines. But if you flinch from getting on this car, you will not be able to get on board this train.” Against his hemp bag, he was exposing himself composedly to the breeze blowing from the fields.

Another crisis

We arrived at Mongkol Borei, a capital of Banteay Mean Cheay County, 30 minutes earlier than the schedule. It took less than three hours from Battambang. In this city there is a hospital called ‘Nippon Hospital’ by the citizen, which Japan built in 1966 of the Sihanouk period in postwar compensation. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other organizations started to support it in 1990 and now the hospital boasts of its high level of medical technology. Some come all the way to this hospital to take medical operation even from Phnom Penh, a capital of the country.

A man whose right leg was blown off at the groin was brought out from the operation room after the changing of the dressing. The number of operations is not so many as before, still more than 100 operations on the war wounded were performed in April and May this year. During the rainy season the operations were decreasing in number. But after July there is a tendency for the number of operations to increase. Still now 300 people step on mines every month on nationwide average. At present about half of the 320 beds in the hospital are occupied, and 21 doctors including 4 surgeons and 12 nurses are working there. In dry season (from October to April) at least one victim of mine is brought in every day, and in rainy season three or four every month.

On the other hand, people who contract infectious diseases such as dengue are decreasing in number this year, because the public information on preventive measures including “to sleep under a mosquito net” and “not to leave pools infested with mosquito larvae uncared for” was effective.

However, there were so many pitiful cases in the hospital. Soen Kon (6) was crying in a feeble voice with her both arms dressed in a sling. She was shot by the Khmer Rouge on August 11th, the day before I visited the hospital to gather materials for an article. On that day she and her mother went to Supinsulen Village of the Phnom Srock region to see her father for the first time in four months. Her father serves with the Seventh Division and the division stations in that village. The bullets fired by an AK 47 automatic rifle crushed her little arms into pieces.

On the next bed Ran Purek (24), a farmer, was lying down. She lost her both legs. I felt sorry to see her putting on her brassiere in a hurry when she noticed I was coming in. On August 3rd she went to the woods in Bontrakuon Village to dig potatoes and she stepped on a mine. When I asked about an attendant on her, she said, “I divorced. I have no family.” Her only relief is free medical treatment.

But another crisis is approaching to this hospital, which has even an ultrasonograph by the aid of Japan. The ICRC has granted 50 dollars to a doctor and 30 dollars to a nurse every month. But the subsidies to them will cut off from next month. A doctor gets a salary of only 40,000 riels (less than 17 dollars) from the government. Since the new government was established, the subsidies which were given separately will be lumped together and given to the government. Whether the money is fairly divided and given to country doctors depends on the new administration. I wish this would not spur competent government officials to take up another employment in foreign-owned corporations or international aid institutions.

The nurture of priests

I drove back to Battambang on Route 5. On the way I went into a byroad and visited Rohateck Village, a farm village that is to be seen at any places in Cambodia.

In Cambodia a temple is the nucleus of a village. In Shai Sataramu Temple of this village a brand-new golden statue of Buddha was enshrined. “This is a donation from one of the villagers. He is a Chinese-Cambodian. After having fled Cambodia, he did well in Thailand.” An old man, who had been taking a nap in the main building of the temple, proudly explained to me. Next to the statue a beautiful coffin is laid in state. The dead is usually cremated or buried in the ground in Cambodia, but when Shin Sam, a Buddhist priest, died at the age of 80 three years ago, he was embalmed by the villagers. Since then he has rested in the coffin eternally. Shin Sam rebuilt the temple ruined in the Pot period, and also he constructed a school and a hospital with contributions.

I heard the student priests repeating after their teacher from a house attached to the temple. The teacher, Chen Poen (27) returned under the U.S. Refugee Return Project. When he was at a refugee camp ‘Saitoni’ on the Thai border, he received his training from an elderly displaced priest. In 1990 the regulation was eased under the Heng Samrin administration and even young people can enter the Buddhist priesthood after leaving their job. But, “There are only five priests in this village, including a young layman in Buddhism,” he explained the reason why he set up a school for Buddhist priests.

However, the school lacks school supplies such as textbooks, chalk, and pens the same as the other Cambodian schools do. Despite that, Chen Poen takes care of orphans at the temple as a starter of developing the village. The orphans are Kon Pot (16), who came alone, expecting that the temple might help him, Sen Sokon (13), who was sent around from one relative to another, and Ton Rantan (16), whom his grandfather didn’t know what to do with and brought here. Before they could remember, they became victims of the Pot regime and the following internal war. Their physiques are so poor that they look five years younger. Judging from that they have survived so far, they may tough, but they are undoubtedly suffering from malnutrition.

Protect the bridges

On the 13th I went to Siem Reap, where there is a famous Angkor ruin. I saw soldiers with rifles and anti-tank guns standing guard over all the bridges on the way.

Captain An Ata (31), who keeps guard over Tras Bridge across Route 5 in Battambang, said, “A Khmer Rouge troop of 100 soldiers came close to the place 10 km away from here last night,” pointing to the bush behind the field. “But there was no gun battle in here, because we have a garrison over there,” he remarked. “The four soldiers are on guard by day and the twelve by night, three times as many as by day. But the Khmer Rouge attacks every night after July 25th, trying to break the bridge.”

The iron material of the bridge is still glossy. Actually this bridge was blew up at the end of last year and rebuilt. It was opened to traffic just two days before I came here for material gathering. If this bridge is destroyed, the Cambodian trunk line will be paralyzed because there is no road parallel to the national road. The soldiers are militiamen from Otaki Village on the route. They serve in shifts for 24 hours every other day in spite of the meager salary of 16,000 riels (less than 7 dollars).

There sometimes happen some cases where a foreigner driving a car on the national road was shot by such a road guard soldier. If he or she doesn’t stop when the soldier calls a halt, it can’t be helped to be mistaken as a security risk. If a foreigner is passing through the road in a well air-conditioned car with the windows closed, it will naturally provoke the soldiers’ antipathy, because he or she can go through safely thanks to their devoted guard. My Cambodian friend halts for a few seconds, thanks them for their efforts and gives some cigarettes. Then, without ill feeling, they even sometimes give him some information on the rest of the way. The disorder of discipline in the Army has become a subject of discussion, but they are also human beings and have to make livings.


We arrived before dark, so I went for a walk to Angkor Wat. The first person I met there was Otsu Koto (40), who stopped by on his way home from his uncle’s house. He said he had prayed for the happiness of his family and the peace of Cambodia. There was a Japanese woman who came to Cambodia on a package tour. She said, “My family and friends said, ‘why are you going to Cambodia? Be careful.’ Now I’m in Cambodia, but I’ve never been exposed to such danger as they think.” She was overwhelmed by the magnificence of the ruin. A French woman, who was listening attentively to the local guide, said, “I heard a foreigner was taken away by the Khmer Rouge, but it happens in any countries. I don’t think only Cambodia is dangerous.” She stays cool.

But the vast grounds of Angkor Wat were deserted and quiet, so I had to look for a foreign tourist for an interview. The restoration by Japanese stonemasons was scheduled to start in May, but it was postponed to August. Now it’s August, but still I couldn’t see any workers. The restoration work must have been put off again.

There was no hotel in this Siem Reap until 1992 except the old-established Grand Hotel. But Paris Accord made an occasion for opening new hotels one after another. Now there are 12 hotels with 480 rooms in total. There were 7,000 tourists in 1991, 12,000 in 1992, and 7,500 in 1993. This year the number of the tourists reached 87,000 as of July 31st and it is expected that the number will be 20,000 by the end of the year. The number is, however, only a fiftieth of the government target of one million a year by 1999.

Kusum Sariet (39), the chief of the Angkor Tourist Bureau, said, “The number of the tourists doesn’t grow as large as we expected, because the mass media report Siem Reap as if it were a dangerous place.” Seemingly he wanted to get rid of misunderstanding. The average of monthly visitors from January to May this year is about 600 people. In March the number of the visitors exceeded 2,000, but in July it slumped to 747. The Anronben battle in May terrified tourists. Anronben is, however, as far as 150 km away from here. “Foreign reporters don’t know the actual situation in Cambodia, so they make a fuss only to hear the sound of gunfire. Before fussing over gunfire, I want them to report emphatically that not a tourist has been injured or killed in consequence of being involved in the battle since 1986.”

On the day following the interview with him, the 15th, the Khmer Rouge attacked the soldiers of the Royal Army who were going to go to Banteay Sulay to remove mines early in the morning. Banteay Sulay is one of the Angkor ruins, but the tourist bureau doesn’t recommend visiting there. If a tourist insists, the military guard will escort him or her. It is true that about 180 soldiers are permanently stationed in the major ruins to maintain public order. But it is undeniable that some reports which fan the tension more than is necessary discourage people from visiting Angkor. Actually I saw a French TV station shooting a staged scene where the soldiers were patrolling with their guns at the ready.

In regard to extending their business to Siem Reap, Western and Japanese companies are still watching how things go. But by the national road a Cambodian-owned modern hotel shaped like a roof of the temple is in the course of interior finish work. “I think this country will be stable because the world recognized it. Now we can expect many tourists. Even Thailand, which has almost no historic temples except flowers (prostitutes), can attract as many tourists as that, so Cambodia can do more. I’m sure the government target of one million tourists will be achieved,” Sean Nam (41), the owner and president of the hotel told of his motive for building a hotel.

He started his business of real estate in 1975 as soon as the Pot regime ended, and got a building fund of two million dollars ready for this hotel without a debt. The amount of two million dollars runs into astronomical figures in Cambodia. Although he didn’t say clearly, he must have made a killing in the UNTAC bubble. The hotel of five stories with 100 rooms is scheduled to open at the beginning of next year. “I’ll employ 70 workers and all of them should be local people except one Westerner as an adviser.” There is something mysterious about Sean Nam, but he is a dependable entrepreneur who concerns about the recovery of the country and the welfare of the nation.

To take a return flight for Phnom Penh, I went to Siem Reap Airport, which is the gateway for the tourists. The reconstruction of the airport has not started yet. There was neither radar equipment nor a talk-down system in the control tower. There was only an aerial radio apparatus, a household barometer and a household alarm clock. In the days of Sihanouk the runways were up to the international standard to welcome tourists directly from foreign countries, but now destroyed taxi lights are still in unrepair. Nevertheless, Mao Sopiup (27), an air-traffic controller, is proud of having no accident. “When visibility is poor owing to a squall or storm, we instruct an aircraft to wait in the sky for 20 minutes, and if the condition doesn’t get better, we instruct the aircraft to go back to Phnom Penh without allowing its landing.” He emphasized the safe aviation. But he came down to the lounge on the first floor and said emphatically, “Please don’t confine your report to the poorness of equipment.” He seems to be annoyed by the foreigner’s reports that exaggerate danger in the same way as Kusum Sariet of the Tourist Bureau did.

The theory of support

Back in Phnom Penh, I met some people of Japanese nongovernmental organizations. There an unexpected opinion on support was expressed by Uma Shin (42), who has worked as a volunteer, mainly nurturing mechanics, for about seven years since he was transferred to Cambodia. “My opinion has changed… Now I am thinking only money is necessary for the rehabilitation of Cambodia.” He argues against the current opinions that not only financial aid but also continuous human aid is necessary. Ma Shin dares to raise an objection, taking into consideration the Cambodian tendency to depend too easily on somebody. He thinks all the management of the rehabilitation project should be left to Cambodian people including the management of the fund, and if they fail and have a bitter experience, they will learn their lesson to be independent.

Actually Keo Touch (35), who was a former Uma’s student and now who is in his capacity as a teacher, thinks of Ma like this, “Even when we run up against a difficulty, Uma stands aloof from us and makes us work it out for ourselves unlike other teachers, which is the good point of him.” Ma hasn’t taught directly since a couple of years ago, not that he isn’t enthusiastic any more.

I happened to have an opportunity to listen to another unique opinion on support from Akihiro Nagabayashi (28) of the U.N. Support Exchange Foundation, who was there to talk with Uma.

“To settle in is the very overseas cooperation,” he expressed himself in terse phrase. After he came to examine the place beforehand twice, once in October 1993 and once more after that, he moved in Phnom Penh in May this year. Since then he has supervised the construction works of an elementary school and managed an artificial-leg factory. In this November, he will marry a daughter of the lodging house where he stayed to understand Cambodia. His life goes just like what he said-“In order to assist, settle in the economic zone of the country” He believed that if he lives in a country which he is offering assistance to and works there, he will not only work for himself but also work for the country. Of course, he can’t live on giving assistance, so he started a travel agency for Japanese people. Even that will be surely a helping hand in the rehabilitation of Cambodia.

Local NGOs

The activities of the Cambodian NGOs seem to have taken root in the society and spread steadily. Together with 55 NGOs in the country, the Ponleu Khmer (Light of Cambodia) is engaged in activities that accord with the principle of the New Constitution, including (1) meditating troubles for the protection of fundamental human rights according to the law, (2) teaching how to raise livestock and how to get a loan of money for the development of villages, (3) calling on women to join the society for the enlightenment of the people on citizenship, (4) running a school for orphans and poor people, and (5) promoting cultural activities in which Cambodian culture is highly regarded and through which the people have a sense of unity.

The Punru Khmer collected opinions through the NGOs all over the country and forged consensus that if we don’t accept the Khmer Rouge and keep fighting with them, there will be no real peace.” Now the Khmer Rouge was illegalized. “Whoever, if he or she is not a member of the Khmer Rouge, violates the law or destroys this country, should be put out of the legal protection,” the chairman, Puon Sitt (44) said definitely. “If the Khmer Rouge will not surrender within six months, we have no option but to arrest them and send to prison,” he added. He himself lost his father, uncle, brother and nephew in the days of Pot, but he didn’t show the upsurge of his emotions. “Without evidence, you can’t capture anyone or torture on the grounds of personal grudge. To watch such things will never happen is also our job.” He defined the stance of the Cambodian NGOs.

Newly born Cambodia

The aid totaling 77 million dollars to Cambodia was decided at the conference on the rehabilitation of Cambodia held in Tokyo on the 10th and 11th of March this year. In passing, Japan by itself will give the allotment of 91,800,000 dollars, amount to a third of all aid from the 27 countries. The government of Kingdom of Cambodia is in a hurry for the recovery from war damage with the help of those foreign countries, but the rehabilitation has been baffled from the start by the subversive activities of the Pot Party, the power struggle in the government, the corruption of the bureaucracy and the low credibility caused by the problems aforesaid.

On August 17th, the last day of this material-gathering trip, high government officials, members of the National Assembly and foreign ambassadors to Cambodia have gathered at Pochentog Airport to see off the first premier Ranariddh, who is going to leave for Malaysia, from about two hours before his departure. While allied for their common interests, Hun Sen, Ranariddh, Chea Sim, Solken and Sam Rainsy are already struggling for power after Sihanouk will pass away. They seem to have friendly talks, waiting for Ranariddh, but they may be enmity with each other. If they make use of the anti-government activities of the Khmer Rouge in secret or line their pockets by taking advantage of the social disorder or confusion, they should be put at disadvantage, no matter how influential they are. For that purpose, now that the UNTAC withdrew, the mass media should keep an eye out for their actions.

A foreign press corps gathers around the VIPs who are getting out of cars one after another. Their attention is focused on the development of the kidnapping of a foreigner in Kampot. The unconfirmed information that the government has already paid a ransom to the Khmer Rouge is flying back and forth, so the press is menacingly demanding the information about when the hostage will be released. That foreign countries will cancel the military aid is a condition which the Khmer Rouge is imposed on the release of the hostage. If false information on this incident is propagated, it may cause armed intervention. I wish such a thing would never happen.

I found a high official of the Foreign Ministry, Chenbunron, whom I’m acquainted with, among a group of men in suits. I asked him for his opinion on this one year to conclude this article. “The pace of recovering is slow, but we have overcome the difficulties one by one. I take an optimistic view of Cambodian future. If the worst should happen with King Sihanouk, the People’s Party and the Funcinpec will not be estranged, because they know well that foreign aid is indispensable for the recovery of Cambodia, and that to receive aid peace and stability is necessary.” Undoubtedly, as the number of the goods increases, the living of Cambodian people has been incomparably more convenient than that of last year, and now that the people can speak and act freely, the city has been vibrant with life and energy and the people have become cheerful.

In Myanmar, a neighboring country with Thailand between Cambodia and Myanmar, the military government still has power over the country, although the Democratic Party won a great victory at the general election four years ago. In Cambodia the democratic constitution and even the democratic government, which a member country of ASEAN doesn’t have, were established through the election under the supervision of the United Nations. But since Cambodia was destroyed thoroughly during the days of Pot, there is no infrastructure or human resources, which existed in 1960s. In order to keep being an independent country under the pressure from the community of nations, Cambodia may need a charismatic leader, and such a leader may invoke the state power, passing over the National Assembly. My old acquaintance Nakharin Mektrairat, an assistant professor of the Politics Department of Thammasat University, remarked with all his wishes, “A coup may be staged like Thailand, but it will be inside the government. I think Cambodia will get more stable.”

The Second Premier didn’t show up for reasons of ‘health’, but informed circles speculated that he was afraid a coup might be staged while he was out. The First Premier Ranariddh went to the Malaysian plane directly without having a customarily held press conference. Probably he tried to avoid trouble. Seeing off the premier’s plane flying into the sky with not so many clouds for the rainy season, I decided to watch the strenuous efforts of Cambodian people.

(Story & Photo by Shinichi ASABE)

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