Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Khmer Rouge stronghold gets markets lesson

PAILIN - The last decade has been a crash course in market economics for ex-Maoist guerrillas in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin, close to the Cambodian border with Thailand.  The town of approximately 22,000 went from playing a key role in the country's long-running civil war to being feted by Phnom Penh after its defection to the government in 1996. Now it has been reduced to a neglected rural backwater. 

Pailin has been hit hard by the political instability in Thailand and a long-running standoff between Thailand and Cambodia over the ancient Preah Vihear temple. The once flourishing border trade has been reduced to a trickle and so has the tourist traffic. 

"It's been a tough decade," says Koma, a taxi driver who makes a living plying the 83 kilometer road between Pailin and Battambang, Cambodia's second-biggest city. "First the gem stones went, then the timber dried up, now there's very little business left at all. There are no clubs and not a lot of hotels. It is very quiet." 

"For me it is hard to find customers who want to go to from Battambang to Pailin," says Koma gesturing at his empty taxi. "Most of them want to bypass Pailin and go straight to the Thai border." 

"Things are very slow," agrees one of several motorcycle taxi drivers waiting for fares outside the entrance of a Pailin temple. "There are far fewer tourists around now because of the problems in Thailand." 

Pailin was a major base in the Khmer Rouge's nearly 20-year civil war against the Phnom Penh government. 

Under the direction of former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary, the town was the center of an enormously profitable border trade in gems and timber to Thailand, used by the guerrillas to finance their war. 

It was also a key entry point for Chinese military and financial assistance to the rebels. The road between Battambang and Pailin was once one of the country's most hotly contested battle zones, the scene of repeated offensives and counter offensives by the two sides. 

Circled by heavily forested hills, a natural barrier against government attacks, Pailin achieved a near mythical status. This was furthered in May 1992 when the Japanese head of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Cambodia and his Australian senior military commander were prevented from visiting the town by a bamboo pole across the road manned by several young Khmer Rouge soldiers. The "bamboo pole incident", as it was referred to in the media, revealed the UN's impotence in the face of the Khmer Rouge's refusal to disarm. 

Government forces took Pailin briefly in 1994, only to lose it again when the Khmer Rouge counter-attacked. Government soldiers were said to have been too busy looting to strengthen their position. The town finally fell in 1996 when Sary defected to the government along with some 3,000 Khmer Rouge soldiers. The move isolated the movement's hardliners and proved to be the beginning of the end of the civil war. 

Sary cut a deal with the authorities pledging to remain neutral in the political in-fighting between feuding coalition parties in return for a free hand to continue to exploit the area's gem and timber wealth. The government feted Cambodia's newest citizens. Schools and hospitals were built in Pailin, the town hooked up to the national power grid, and promises of generous financial aid were made. 

Pailin prospered in the late 1990s as Thai gem traders flocked to it and a number of casinos were opened to attract Thai gamblers. 

However, things turned out to be not as rosy as many of its citizens hoped. Today, it takes four hours to get to Pailin from the Thai capital of Bangkok, around one hour more than it takes to complete the bone-jarring journey along the pot-holed road from Battambang. 

Residents say the gemstones, once so plentiful, began to run out in the early part of the decade. 

"We still find some gem stones but not as many as before," says Meas, who occasionally pans for stones by hand in a nearby river. "Most of them are gone, especially rubies and sapphires. There are some gems left but most of the fields are controlled by the government." 

Khmer Rouge logging in the 1990s largely denuded the area's timber reserves, reducing one of the town's other sources of income, the manufacture of hardwood furniture. Large areas surrounding the town have been cleared by agribusinesses to plant crops such as cashews, cassava and fruits. 

The casinos have shut up shop and moved to the Thai border. With them have closed many of the hotels built to cater to the gamblers. 

Some residents maintain that the smuggling of fuel and cars from Thailand are now major economic activities. The only new building work underway seems to be on several large villas. "The houses of former members of the Khmer Rouge with money," according to one local who did not want to be named. 

"Obviously life is better now that there is no fighting,'' says Chun Chheonn, a former soldier in the Khmer Rouge. "But things are difficult, especially for people who used to be in the old Khmer Rouge army. The government does not provide them with much assistance." 

No one from Pailin's local government was available to talk about the town's economic prospects. 

When Prime Minister Hun Sen visited this year, media reports claimed one of the businesses he proposed for the development of the area was a golf course. There are also plans to establish a special economic zone on the outskirts of the town to lure Thai business. 

For the large number of former soldiers whose only marketable skill is fighting, tensions with Thailand over the Preah Vihear temple have resulted in an opportunity of sorts. 

According to Chheonn, the military are keen to recruit troops from among the former Maoist guerrillas to send to the disputed temple area. "If they ask me to go to Preah Vihear I will. I'm happy to fight the Thais ... as long as Khmers do not fight Khmers." 

Meanwhile, the town's residents are keeping a wary eye on the international criminal tribunal into the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge and the possibility that more individuals may be arrested to join the five awaiting trial in Phnom Penh. 

The tribunal has been a sensitive subject ever since police swooped down in helicopters and arrested four of the town's most famous residents, former Khmer Rouge leaders Ieng Sary, his wife Ieng Tirith, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea. 

"Everyone here in Pailin is paying very close attention to the trial, even if they are nervous to talk about it,'' says Chheonn. 

Neul, who runs a small shop next to Khieu Samphan's modest single-story house, remembers when the police took away took their elderly neighbor. "His wife bought things at my shop but he never came out," she says. 

Her husband, Savy, says, "I want him in jail for what he's done. No one around here was angry when he was arrested." 

Not everyone agrees. The Khmer Rouge "fought to stop the Vietnamese from taking our country", said Lat Lina, a local businessman. "You can print that the UN trial will not bring justice for Cambodia." 

(Inter Press Service)

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