Shinichi Asabe Article Collection

The People of Southeast Asia

Cambodia The Front LineMay 1992


A government troop patrols the national road that has gotten many holes by mines.

The Khmer Rouge broke the peace pact and has been advancing although we didn’t move from the line at the ceasefire,” said Lt. Col. Kim Than (34),and a moment later an explosion sounded off at the back of jungle.

“Well, it’s a mine field here. Even when the wind causes a twig to drop from a tree, a mine explodes,” he explained.This is An Dash village, 13km north of Kompong Thom city, along Route12.

On 14 June, when the second stage of disarming started, the Pol Pot Party shelled Chi Ouk village and Phomm Sre village two kilometers north, with the villagers escaping to the Kompong Thom side under the government troops’ control. Japan’s Diet passed the PKO (Peace Keeping Operation) bill the next day in Tokyo.

“Pol Pot seems to intend to cut Route 12 and control Preah Vihear prefecture. And they must be planning to attack not only Kompong Thom but also Kompong Cham, which could be the bridgehead to Phnom Penh.”

The total numbers of shells that the Khmer Rouge has fired with 107mm rockets and 120mm mortars along Route 12 after the Paris Accord on December 23, last year up to 7 July, the day when this reporter visited, have been counted at 456. The troops of Lt. Col. Kim Than dig out more than ten mines that the Khmer Rouge plants during the night, from 7:30 every morning to keep the national road safe.And they counter-attack with equal weapons against the Khmer Rouge’s shelling from 14:00 every two days on average so as not to be invaded and suffer any more.

“We want the UN soldiers to take our place as soon as possible and go back to our posts. Although we are also keeping the road safe for the UN to come here,they hardly come probably because they are too afraid.” His two soldiers were killed and another two were injured last month. The Lieutenant Colonel looked tired. Japan’s investigative team didn’t come here, either.

The soldiers said,”We can go to Preah Vihear if you walk.” We went to Chi Ouk village by military truck in the typically heavy seasonal rain. Huge puddles continued on the road at intervals of less than 20 meters. They were made by the explosions of land mines. To plant new anti-tank mines at the bottom of these puddles is the way of the Khmer Rouge. The government soldiers investigate the mines in the muddy water with two-meter wooden rods with on extended 50 cm iron needle to survive even the worst case. They did such investigation this morning, too. Then found a Type 652-A, a mine which explodes even without being stepped on by reacting to high-tech mine-searching machines. So they don’t use the machine here. Our truck passed by the concrete border sign and got to Preah Vihear prefecture.

Their base camp was located at Prey To Teng temple of Chi Ouk village. A heavy machine gun was gazing on the jungle backed by three Buddha images. Near the pillar, many bullet holes spread on the ground and the baskets of today’s supper was seen —– the aroma of vegetables taken from the jungle, the core of the banana tree, and dried fish drew uncountable flies. The supply to front line is limited. The UN helicopter that flew above this area was shot at the same day. The pilot was uninjured but the aircraft was damaged and made an emergency landing at Kompong Thom. It was fifth time for a UN helicopter to be attacked.

From this point, we had to go forward on foot. Four-wheeled vehicle cannot avoid the densely planted mines. To trace the footprints of the soldier who walked ahead is required without making any sound, so as not to step on a mine or awake the enemy. The wreckages of blown cars lie here and there. No one was in the farmers’ houses along the road. The houses left only their burnt pillars and the huge holes from rocket explosions in their gardens.

After about a twenty-minute walk without any trouble, the first thing what we saw was ‘Kompong Cham Route’instead of the Ho Chi Ming Route. The jungle road is so narrow that a car hardly passes through, crosses Route 12 and fades out of sight in the thick woods. The soldiers appealed confidently that Khmer Rouge opened this strategic road to bring their guerrilla bands and ammunition into Kompong Cham.

Only several hours after the Lieutenant Colonel informed us that “it has been quiet since Chi Ouk was fired upon by 21 recoilless rockets on July 2,” three rockets echoed at a hotel in Kompong Thom city around ten o’clock that night (July 7). The next morning, it was disclosed that the cannon aimed at the UNTAC Indonesian Mine-Cleaning Training Center, as the result of following a witness in the village. The shells were found in a rice field one kilometer short of the Center.

Moreover, two civilians riding a motorbike were killed by a mine on Route 12 through Sras Trayong village, only eight kilometer from the city. It was the same point this reporter passed on the way back from the front line yesterday evening. There are a lot of farmers who live in the front line side of this point. The Khmer Rouge sneaked into the suburbs of Kompong Thom.

The government troops immediately started de-mining operations. The soldiers detected small changes in the surface of the earth with their sharp eyes and marked the mining places with standing twigs. They found ten mines, including two anti-tank mines in a 50-meter-area that they had already inspected once.

“Bang … Ba, Bang ….” Two young soldiers shot their AK47 semi-machine guns at the twig from a distance of about fifty meters away. Though this reporter prepared to photograph the explosion, even after five and six shots, the mine didn’t blow up. Eventually, one of them climbed a tree beside the road. He tried to make his bullet inclined to reach the mine through the covered soil. “Boom!.” The first bullet from the top of tree hit the mine successfully. The anti-tank mine explosion blew the soil so high that it came far out of the frame of the camera’s viewfinder. After some seconds, the soil mixed with small stones fell from the sky. The road had such a huge hole that three adult could hide in it.

The ceasefire investigative team that the United Nation Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) dispatched coincidentally on the same day with this reporter, merely observed the de-mining operation from a distance. When Major Perueno of the team found me at a supper restaurant, he urged me to inform him of the front line situation I had been through during the Khmer Rouge’s attack.

In a top-level meeting of the Supreme National Council (SNC) held in the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh the same day, President Khieu Samphan rejected Akashi’s disarming proposal and once again urged the Phnom Penh government to recognize the Vietnamese soldiers’ remains and to pull down the government. The SNC almost broke up and waited for censure by the permanent members of the UN Security Council. The planned date, July 11, that two hundred thousand soldiers of the four parties would disarm and go to the posts was postponed, too.

Two tanks were parked in the position of almost dropping down from Route 12, which was higher mounted than the surrounding field, one kilometer from the base camp of the fifth Division. These were the Soviet-made amphibian PT-76’s for moving even in Cambodia with it, rainy season that bogged down all the land. “Although they want us to disarm, if we don’t have the tanks, the Khmer Rouge will make a big attack without fail,” the pilot, Sergeant Soi Ship (36) said anxiously.

The reason why the tanks were parked on the slope was to start the engines by running down in case of emergency. “Da da da da —,” the sergeant started the engine. Its roar broke the quietness of the jungle and exhaust blew up the drain in the pipe. “the Khmer Rouge run away even when we make this sound,” he said, pointing to a covered gun barrel.

“UNTAC? What’s that?,” a farmer(46) who turned up to the national road where a tank roared, asked in an interview. Two years ago, he, his wife, and his eight children escaped from their native village of Morek eight kilometers to the north because the Khmer Rouge rolled back for the Vietnamese withdrawal. And then in April of this year, they ran away also from Chi Ouk village five kilometers to the north where they had evacuated, to this wasteland near Tarai named New Morek by themselves because of the Khmer Rouge’s attack under cover of the ceasefire. On the way, the farmer’s first son lost his leg by a mine, and while jumping and exploring for mines, a type P-69 pierced a fragments into his own body. Nevertheless, he returned to his own three-hectare field in Morek village to plant rice at the beginning of this rainy season.

The numbers of displaced people, in Kompong Thom prefecture alone, are 20,223 of 3,327 families who evacuated after the Paris accord. And Pol Pot’s controlled area increased from 12% before the accord to 20% after the UN came to Cambodia.


The luxurious hotel that the Japanese team stayed.

“Canada hasn’t ever used any weapons, although they are charge of land transportation and have already driven 140,000 kilometers in total,” Mr. Tatsuo Arima, chief of the investigative team announced in a press conference at a hotel on July 4,. However, he didn’t mention that they had driven around only in the safe areas defended by the Phom Penh government with their lives.

The Japanese team members said when visiting the air transportation corps of France, they were told that they had better bring more commodities than planned because self-sufficiency is required for the first two months and to take to higher altitudes to avoid being shot. Except for this, the Japanese team made ‘replying visits’ to the members of Tokyo Peace Meeting but didn’t hear the voice of any Cambodian citizens. “Though we came to Cambodia for the first time,listening directly to the people who are working on the spot is completely different from reading the papers in Tokyo. We have already seen most of Phnom Penh, so we would like to see the local spots tomorrow,” said Arima, who seemed to be satisfied with their investigation so soon in the evening of their third day.

The destination where Japan’s team went by UN helicopter on 5 July “because it was a good example of ceasefire watch” was CV-6, one of the checkpoints on the Vietnamese border known for its tranquility. The press corps, of course, questioned why they did not go to Kompong Thom where Pol Pot broke the ceasefire agreement and to Battambang where the refugees are coming in. However, they gave the nonsensical answer: “We can’t ask the busy UN helicopter officers any more.”

This hotel, the Hotel Cambodiana is the most luxurious one in Cambodia. It is managed by a Singaporian and all the structured materials and interior were imported. It is not sure Cambodian at all. Although the monthly salary for a hotel employee is about 3,000 yen, a standard room costs 20,000 yen per night. The press conference room was cold with its four buzzing air-conditioners, as if there was no power shortage in this country.

This reporter met again a 46 year-old UN staff who had just back from Battambang. Though he requested anonymity in order to work for UN, he said: “Japan’s team doesn’t understand the meaning of ‘Logistics’ at all. They can never know how to get food and water, to do what’s needed, nor what personnel is required, with such a investigation. If they really intend to send the Self-Defense-Forces here by the end of this year, they should have started preparations right now. A few of them still remain in Cambodia, don’t they?” he criticized severely. “Besides, have they found any UN counterpart who knows every inch of this neighborhood, which believes that Defense Ministry is asking the field information from the trading companies? Please stop it! They will come here to be put to shame and waste taxes.” He came to Cambodia after participating in the United Nations Namibia Independent Support Group (UNTAG) and has been researching the field here for the refugee repatriation program since last year. Such an experienced person predicted the failure of Japan’s government and SDF.

A UNTAC soldier guards his head office with a machine gun in the quiet capital, Phnom Penh.

This UN staff member, who also became angry at UNT★

Mr. Kiyoshi Uma (45), the NGO staff member who has taught car repairing since 1987, and who is also the chairman of the Japan Society of Cambodia, spoke openly, as well. “Japan is saying ‘Logistic support’ for their own reasons but what the Cambodian people really want is to remove the mines and expel the Khmer Rouge. Who else, including Pol Pot, will obey UNTAC without teeth? UNTAC recommends that the Cambodian people learn the way of mine-cleaning for their independence as a kind of whitewashing. Simply because they must be afraid. And also something called a shadow cabinet (the Japan Socialist Party) came to Cambodia to ask question like: ‘Do you want the SDF to come to this country?’ Their answer is as clear as day. They want any kind of help in any way. I want to say ‘Don’t come here to get evidence only for refuting in the Diet.”


The annual budget of the Phnom Penh government last year was 71,741 million riel for income and 107,134 million riel for expenditure. Their actual income became about 79,000 million riel with international aid, which was 13% of the whole. Their GNP was 228 million US$, and the GNP per person was only 36$ if calculated on the estimated population, 8.1 million. Even in Laos and Burma often called as the poorest countries in the world, they are over 150 $.

The number of government employees, excluding the soldiers, are 140,000. Although their monthly salaries became more than double of the previous year’s in sliding to the inflation belatedly, an officer of the central government gets 39,000 riel and a state factory worker receives about 15,000.

The water, food, and rice fields are not enough in every village of Cambodia. “The refugees came back from the aided and richer camps to the villages where people hardly have been living. They quarrel with the villagers by running all the water out of the wells and catching all the fish in the ponds,” a 46 year-old male staff member of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported. He was furious that UNTAC took away the well-digging machine of UNICEF by saying the water for soldiers was low under such hard conditions. “The numbers of refugees that we could return up to now are about 50,000. It would never be possible to finish their repatriation until the end of this year, the deadline planned by the UN. It will take many months probably until June of next year at earliest at this pace.”

Children rejoice at a strike of water.

The nature of Cambodia is severe and the land has been devastated through a war continued more than twenty years. The farmers have been annoyed with the repeat of droughts and floods. 595 million US$ of UNTAC reconstruction aid was divided into the followings. 57% for repairment of Routes 5 and 6, the route of the refugees’ repatriation; 24% for the railway; 5% for energy like electricity; 3.7% for the water system, and other. 375,000, the number of repatriating refugees, are only 4.4% of the whole population of this country. 82% of them are farmers and never had cars or electronic equipment. And the returnees also will live on farming. Only 1.1% of the aid is used for agricultural irrigation, a fatal problem of the people.

On the other hand, Mrs. Ly Vanna (45), who got a job as a cook at the Phnom Penh Refugee Reception Center, couldn’t stop laughing. It was quite natural. She said her monthly salary was 95 US$. It is more than three times that of a government employee. She got this job because her nephew was working for the Cambodian Red Cross. “But when this place closes, I will have to return to the rice field. “Nobody knows how long the UN prosperity will go on. However, some people are certainly profiting. But the difference between the ones who have the connection, money, and talent and the others who don’t widening rapidly.

“It was just like a ‘ghost town’ and I was afraid to live with my children,” said Mrs. Ear Kim San (58) who with her ten children, had evacuated to the Vietnamese border during the Pol Pot era and settled down in a room of a rotten building of Phnom Penh in February 1980. But the place this reporter met her was a new slum on the bank of the River Basac. She moved to this slum this spring with jobless her son (18) and her daughter’s family that had no sweet home even after marrying a policeman. Mrs. San needed another room because her children grew up but she could not buy a room since they had jumped over 5,000 US$, five times that of last years’. Her hut, which she bought for two hundred US$, doesn’t have a water system, electricity, or a toilet. Dirty puddles are under and around her hut. It’s easy to imagine the mosquitoes’ attack at night.

The hotel where Japan’s investigative team stayed was located on the same right bank going up the River Basac about two hundred meters from this slum. However,there was the barrier of a construction site between them as if to hide the slum.

Mr. Suchitlart(45), a Thai capitalist, bought an old building facing one of the Phnom Penh’s main streets for “more than a hundred million US$” and reformed completely. He opened a restaurant named Pacific Chai on 9 June this year. He planned also to open a hotel above the second floor of this building in September. “No matter which party would take power, the economy here never be worse than before,” he guessed. His projects are done 100% by Thai funds, not a joint business with Cambodians. A Thai cook whom he brought from Bangkok teaches French cooking to Khmer trainees. Waiters with bow ties are serving tidily under chandeliers. The 500 riel fried noodles at the local restaurant with its buzzing flies inside became 2,000 riel here. Nevertheless, there was no vacant table. 85% of the customers are from UNTAC, Suchitlart says.

“The UN announced that the previous contracts could not be guaranteed but I think they meant the trading contract of ruby or teak with Pol Pot. I intend to wait for any sign without investing more for a while, “the clever Chinese Thai was estimating.

The land continuing 25km along Route 3 from central Phnom Penh reportedly has already been bought out by Chinese merchants abroad. The number of foreign companies that have already invested in Cambodia exceeded a hundred by the end of June. From Japan, Nissho Iwai Co. Ltd. who got the right for offshore oil drilling last year; Japan Hotel Coupon; Kyowa trading; Marubeni; Nichimen; and Okada Timber were seen in the copy of official listings.

Cambodian investment law and foreign exchange law have not been adjusted yet since the time of their closed-door economy. When asking,”Won’t Cambodia go back to the last stage of Sihanouk age on such a pace?” to a friend of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the answer is: “But if we don’t open our economy to the world, the government will corrupt and ruin itself. Just like the people, the government is so poor that they cannot get along without embezzling the rations,” he answered unusually sullenly.

On the other hand, an NGO staff stationed in Phnom Penh after retiring from a foreign capital company in Japan, Mr. Mutsuo Nakura (61) worried that a “market economy doesn’t bring the things to the place where they are really needed the most. I think this country had better to take a controlled economy even now.” When he donated textbooks to primary schools before, each level of the Ministry of Education, prefecture, district, and village pocketed and sold some of them at local markets.

Located along Route No.5 eleven kilometers out of Phnom Penh a great street over ten meters wide appeared suddenly among the rice field. On both sides of the street, Vietnamese brothels decorated with small colored bulbs stood in rows. Girls clad in mini-skirts that would never be seen among Khmer women called to the customers’ cars.

A prostitute, Miss Chi (20), spoke openly: “I don’t like Cambodia. Because the Khmer people dislike Vietnamese.” Although the Vietnamese economy is also facing hard times, they can earn three times as much in their country than in Cambodia. The aim of these girls is the 17 thousand foreign potential patrons from about 30 countries that are not in Vietnam. Eight girls between 17 and 21 years old of this brothel are all from Vietnam. This reporter came across a Japanese donated car with‘UN’painted largely on its doors. When the camera flashed, a few UNTAC soldiers with angry looks ran after the photographer.

“I came here for you!” said a foreign soldier who bullied and didn’t pay the tip. And moreover, he committed an injury accident against a girl in early July. Mr. Yasushi Akashi, chief of UNTAC gave a warning that soldiers should have been discreet not to disgrace the UN. However, the numbers of UN official cars that this reporter witnessed, including in another red light zone, called Toul Koak Street, on the way back rose to six this night.


An expected candidate (61) who participated in the drafting of the Paris Accord, came out when visiting the Phnom Penh Office of Son San’s party (Buddhist Democratic). This party has about 50,000 members in Cambodia and abroad. They will stand 120 candidates for 120 seats of the new Parliament. “There is no freedom of speech,” he said, asking to be anonymous. “We held a general meeting in Phnom Penh on May 22, but Hun Sen obstructed us and 46 members were arrested.” The 8,000 attendances were domestic supporters. The civil servants and students in this country and the refugees at Site 2 (their party’s camp) were prohibited to attend. Although he added that thirteen members have been assassinated by some agent, he agreed that“suppression” was decreasing under the direction of UNTAC.

“Dose Hun Sen himself really intends to persuade Pol Pot!” he said, doubting Hun Sen’s party that used to be the same communist power with Pol Pot before. When using the word, “the government” in the interview carelessly, he showed anger without reserve. Of course, he never has recognized it as a government. About Vietnamese solders who remain in Cambodia, Pol Pot ‘s party is continuously blamed for it. “Many Vietnamese are in this country. They are not captured only because they are guerrillas. If Japan were us, what would you do when North Koreans were coming to Japan without passports or visas? We never care if they are legal immigrants. But we cannot consent that they sneak into and settle down in our country.” He persisted in saying that a lot of Vietnamese soldiers gather at the Palace square every night. This reporter, who went there late at night, couldn’t stop thinking that it was merely his imagination.

And he seemed not to be satisfied with the transference of the administration in the five main Ministries of Defence, Finance, Interior, Information, and Foreign Affairs by the deadline of 30 October. “Our policy is that the talents from eachparty should be involved as the officials of each Ministry in the proportion to public support. However, if the officials of Hun Sen are sacked, there’s no unemployment remedy. So we will agree just to an increase in staff. “Secondly, this reporter tried to listened to Mr. Ung Hout (45), political adviser of Ranariddh Party (Funcinpec). “UNTAC ought to do all or nothing,” he said, disclosing his irritation against the UN’s cooperation with the Phnom Penh government in administration and field work. After stressing that the SNC was the highest authority, he reluctantly submitted that Hun Sen’s officials may continue the administration under the condition of distinguishing the legislation from it strictly. But his statement that “UNTAC doesn’t have any right to meddle in the agreement of the SNC or the elected Parliament serves as a reminder that the Thai capitalist had supported this party”.

In the garden of their office, they brought tables outside for registering new members. There was a twenty-meter-long queue on this day. Three hundred people came on the peak day and the new enrollments have already reached 30,000 since they opened their office in Phnom Penh. The total members, including from overseas, are over 200,000 now, according to him.

“The Cambodian people learned many things through the three powers during the past 22 years. We will realize true democracy by appointing the talents who studied in the West. Of course, we understand that our country is still in the early stages and the people’s demand is have full stomachs. So we will go step by step. And we request UNTAC to give a basic idea of ‘Right’ and ‘Freedom’ through their instructions of a general election.” Mr. Ung Hout spoke so with eloquence in strong French-accented English.

Both parties were seeking the chance of blaming the Hun Sen government for the suspicion of the Vietnamese soldiers’ remains and demanding an administration that would work for Hun Sen’s profit to transfer to the SNC and UNTAC in trying to be the first party. However, although the Phnom Penh government is insulted by being criticized as “puppet” or “corrupted,” it is a fact that they have the longest ruling experience of 13 years among the four parties, anyway.

Mr. Khiev Kanharith replies questions in a crowd of reporters.

Finally, this reporter interviewed Mr. Khiev Kanharith(41), the SNC representative from Phnom Penh government. “We have meetings three times a week regularly. Although everyone is cooperative, only the one from Pol Pot’s partyis often be absent by excusing himself as being ‘too busy.’ They are not such fools that they must try to make us discorded and waiting for the deadline.”

He was asked if any countermeasure would be taken against the Khmer Rouge, who reopened attacks. “At first, if they continue to attack us by persisting about the Vietnamese soldiers in our country, I would say ‘Let’s return to the stage before the Paris Accord. The reason why they shot UN helicopters was that the copters distributed the bills which explained the Paris Accord. We don’t have any good ideas to persuade such people who have turned deaf ears, but only the way is to make the farmers in their controlled areas not support Khmer Rouge by aiding them, too.”

What’s the future for Pol Pot’s party? “Even if the leaders free to exile in China, they will be unable to avoid impeachment from many countries. And if China shelters them, China would be taking sanctions for them. If Pol Pot gets some seats in the Parliament as the result of an election, we will have to accept them. But it’s an impossibility,”he said, hinting his real intention of “without Pol Pot.”

But the other three parties say not to use international aid for the national budget…… “Why can’t we use it for public necessities such as energy, medicine, education, transportation, etc.? We won’t use it for our campaign. And UNTAC superintendents are only in a few high positions of the five Ministries. We can’t stop governing this country.”

This reporter asked “Who will you vote for?” to every person he met during this coverage in Phnom Penh-controlled Cambodia. Everyone answered invariably: “Ihaven’t decided yet and will vote for someone who will make my life easier. But I would never vote anyone from Pol Pot.” During the Pol Pot era, 3,314,768 people were killed, 141,448 people became disabled, and about 200,000 children lost their parents, according to research by the Phnom Penh government. Only 13 years have passed since the end of such a genocidal age.

The Japanese ambassador to Cambodia, Mr. Yukio Imagawa, told to the press: “Khieu Samphan phoned me to ask my convenience last night and I met him this morning (July 4). He said admirably that he never took power again and wanted to be an opposition party in the Parliament, just like the Japan Communist Party. He seemed to want Japan to mediate between them and the West, who is trying to bring them to the World Court.” Pol Pot’s party, who is forced into a corner, would be seeking some exit to survive.

“The people’s wishes toward the coming election are firstly peace, secondly money, and thirdly jobs,” a high-ranking officer of the Phnom Penh government said. He forecasted the result of the election as follows: Pol Pot could get 5% because they are making more farmers at their beck and call by giving tractors or pointing guns. Son San would get 15~20% in the present tendency influenced from the freeing of Eastern Europe and the richness of the West. Ranariddh would get less than 15%. Hun Sen could get 25~30%, reduced 10 points from the estimate at the Paris Accord because they upset people by their corruption and the fact that they are still fighting at the same time against the Khmer Rouge.

At a restaurant in Kompong Thom: Major Arief (35) of UNTAC Indonesia, who was watching the ceasefire meeting of the four parties, leant on a chair absent-mindedly. Suddenly, he sat down on his heels with a glass of coke that he had leftover before an old woman and a boy suffering squatted down in front of the restaurant. They hesitated to do it as if they were afraid of the foreigner.”Drink up!” he gestured, and the boy took out only the ice from the glass preciously and gave the glass to his grandmother before he drank.

Said Maj. Arief when he came back to his table: “I like this country very much. As much as I love my own country. I love their kind and tender nationality. I think Indonesia and Japan ought to give time and a chance to this country,” and then he left such words for the meeting.

(Story & Photo by Shinichi ASABE)

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