Challenges of Commerce

Phnom malai, Battambang province – Former Khmer Rouge fighter Van Nhaen doesn’t fear or even care about what will happen to her community when and if the National Assembly passes the promised amendments to allow a trial of former Khmer Rouge leaders.

Instead, she says she fears poverty and a free market economy that has left her with little choice but to sell her black sesame crop at rock bottom prices to outsiders she does not understand or trust.

She says she misses the days when the Khmer Rouge controlled the economy here in this remote border post at the edge of Thailand that remains the heartland for the true believers of the rebel movement.

Having grown up under the wing of the Khmer Rouge, she says she knows little else, and has found that savy middlemen are too much for illiterate farmers who don’t even know how to bargain.

“When we lived with the Khmer Rouge, farming was easy,” the 42-year-old mother of three who fought for the Khmer Rouge for 20 years says.

“The Thai middlemen would come directly and sign a contract with our leaders.

“The prices were good and stable—much better than now. But now Thai and Khmer middlemen come themselves and negotiate directly with us.”

“The Khmer middlemen are the worst,” she said. “Now we can hope for just [$0.55]a kilo for sesame and [$0.09] for red corn a kilo. We used to make [$1.33] for a kilo of red corn. I don’t know why it is so bad now.”

Long Norin, a former senior advisor to the Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary, says the problems being faced by ordinary people here are more pressing than a trial.

He does not want to talk about a trial of the regime’s former leaders, claiming he is a simple sesame farmer now too and just worries about each day as it comes.

But while tight-lipped on what effect a trial may have on reintegrating his people, he is vocal about the problems of farming here and says that a lack of trust between the farmers, a lack of education, desperation to earn back money to pay loans for seeds and poor roads to transport the products themselves are all costing the former Khmer Rouge farmers dearly and pushing them into a cycle of poverty in the free market they fought so hard to avoid.

He has begun working on a cooperative that spans Pailin, Malai and a smattering of other mainly former rebel areas in the northwest that gives financial loans to farmers at reduced rates called the Aid Farmers Association.

“I, too, do not know the international price of the commodities we grow here, but we don’t have the choice except to export to Thailand and Vietnam and it is these middlemen who are trying to take price down,” the former Khmer Rouge intellectual says.

“That is why I am working with the Aid Farmers Association, to help our farmers. Our association is trying to buy all our sesame to hold the price so it will not drop down.

“Like last week I went to Pailin trying to strengthen the price of sesame between our two areas and it had already dropped by ten baht overnight! Now I hear it has dropped another four.”

Meanwhile, farmers here would love to trust their former leaders and continue to view outsiders with suspicion, but now also look upon each other as competition.

Do they dare hold out with a former Khmer Rouge collective when their neighbour might be selling to the Thais and Vietnamese and getting at least enough to pay for new seed and settle their debts to be able to try again next year?

“My children can read and write a bit,” says Van Nhaen, gathering up her bundles of drying black sesame and throwing them underneath her simple house just as another wet season squall looks set to hit.

“But I cannot do anything except farm. I have to sell my crops, no matter what the price they offer,” she says. “We not only have to eat, we have to pay our debts.”


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