The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces will allow newly integrated Khmer Rouge defectors in Anlong Veng to remain in their own divisions and zones, a practice in the past blamed for weakening the army along political lines.
Officials last week expressed concern over the plan, worrying that Anlong Veng might turn into another Pailin or Samlot, where former Khmer Rouge’s intact military structure could allow them to reignite civil war at any time.
“What I’m concerned about is that even though they ask for reintegration, they want to very much remain with their own commander in their own area,” co-Minister of Defense Prince Sisowath Sirirath said Thursday.
Government spokesman Sieng Lapresse said that bowing to the rebels’ request to remain in Anlong Veng was a matter of “human rights.”
“We try to get the integration program to be successful, therefore we had to abide by the wish of the people,” Sieng Lapresse said. “We just want to do like any other human being who wishes to stay in their own homeland.”
Prince Sirirath said keeping the former Khmer Rouge in their own army divisions was not a condition for their defection, but came about in recent discussions between the two sides.
The RCAF last week integrated 1,700 ex-rebels into Anlong Veng divisions 23 and 24, each of which an analyst estimated are already several hundred soldiers strong.
The government last month appointed former Khmer Rouge commanders Yim Pum and Oung Lieng to head the divisions and awarded the men a one-star general’s rank.
Keeping Khmer Rouge divisions intact within RCAF has caused trouble before. Samlot’s Division 16, for example, resumed fighting the government in late 1997, sending thousands fleeing into Thailand. The division leader, Iem Phan, defected to the government once again in December and was reintegrated last week.
And Pailin officials have hinted that former rebel troops there might fight rather than turn over Khmer Rouge leaders to an international tribunal.
Asked if leaving Anlong Veng’s military structure intact would leave them too powerful, Prince Sirirath said that RCAF was counting on the loyalty of the defectors.
“This is a concern for all of us, but I hope for all of us that the Khmer Rouge are really sincere this time,” he said.
Former National Assembly human rights commission chief Kem Sokha said Friday that the rebels’ idea of national reconciliation should include assimilation with society. He warned that if the former Khmer Rouge remain unassimilated in Anlong Veng, their movements—in particular, their human rights record—will go unchecked.
“It is very difficult for the government to control all the activities of the Khmer Rouge and also the problems of the human rights,” he said.
After a pro-government mutiny last year, rebel defectors reported a wide array of human rights abuses in Anlong Veng during the rebels’ eight-year use of the remote northern town as the nerve center for military operations.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of families were said to have been executed without trial.
Prince Sirirath acknowledged that the Anlong Veng area for some time will likely remain a de facto autonomous zone—similar to former rebel zones of Pailin and Malai—outside the control of the central government.
The request on the part of the rebels to stay at home encompassed both their political and social concerns, Prince Sirirath said.
“I think the Khmer Rouge [will] wait and see and keep an eye out to see if the peace can hold until the next election. The Khmer Rouge are a very careful group of people,” he said.
In addition, the prince noted that it is difficult to move a soldier to an unfamiliar area in which he must support his family and blend in with people who may be suspicious of him.
Khmer Rouge soldiers who had defected in 1996 were funneled into their own divisions based in their longtime western border zones. And prior to that, entire divisions were created out of troops formerly belonging to the two resistance armies—National Army of Independent Kampuchea (ANKI) and the Khmer People’s National Liberation Armed Forces—based in the remote northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey.
When factional fighting shattered the Funcinpec-CPP coalition government in July 1997, several near-entire divisions of former ANKI and Khmer Rouge troops slipped back into resistance.
A military analyst on Thursday said that it would take another “major act” on the level of July 1997’s upheaval to dislodge the former rebels from the government fold.
And a crucial ingredient in keeping the former rebels’ trust will be fair treatment in matters of demobilization over the next five years, the analyst said.
The former rebels must not be unfairly singled out for RCAF’s planned 40 percent demobilization or slighted in resettlement or retraining projects, he said.