Integration Issue Being Ignored, Experts Warn
Three years ago major defections brought thousands of former rebel Khmer Rouge into the government fold. But experts are warning it may not have permanently ended the threat of war.
Several have raised concerns in recent days that many of those former Khmer Rouge families remain isolated from Cambodian culture at large, that provincial and district authorities have had too little contact, and that not enough is being done to erase lingering suspicions and build a lasting peace. A failure to integrate them could have consequences for the future stability of the country, they warned.
“They have physically defected,” said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. “But they have not mentally defected. People overlook the significance. And I think the effort to integrate them should be larger.”
The issue of Khmer Rouge integration gained prominence last week at a forum on the issue sponsored by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace and a recent study on conditions in the countryside. Though many experts have expressed concerns, opinions on what should be done to solve the problem vary widely.
Ok Serei Sopheak, who spoke at the forum, visited several former Khmer Rouge areas and spent significant time in Pailin, Phnom Malai and other areas.
Many of the areas, he said, appear to be reaping the benefits of peace. “They were very well administered, with real government service and I saw people responding,” he said.
But what he found there disturbed him.
Some former Khmer Rouge areas lack infrastructure such as good roads and the government is unable to fund construction, he said. As a result, some of the areas, remain “closer to Thailand than to provincial authorities.”
In most areas, he discovered little interaction between local former Khmer Rouge leaders and outside government officials.
“The government has taken everything for granted; I took everything for granted before I went to these areas,” Ok Serei Sopheak, a former adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng who is now director of the Cambodian Center for Conflict Resolution, said Monday.
“But when I went to Pailin and Malai, I discovered these areas after three years are run only by the Khmer Rouge,” he said. “And a lot of relationships are building up between district administrations and people. But provincial authorities are staying very far away. There’s no real working relationship.”
Tens of thousands of former Khmer Rouge soldiers and villagers defected to the government in Pailin and Malai in 1996, under a deal that gave the areas virtual autonomy. However, both areas are slated like other districts around the country to have new leaders rotated in every three years.
The rotations have not happened yet. But provincial officials in both Battambang—where Pailin municipality is located—and Banteay Meanchey—where Malai is located—told Ok Serei Sopheak that they are planning on rotating in new leaders in the coming months.
Such a prospect, he warned, must be done carefully.
“If you suddenly inject new people who don’t understand the culture and situation, you might disturb the balance and stability,” he said.
In a paper published last month, Ok Serei Sopheak makes several suggestions, including engaging communities in rehabilitation and development projects, developing schools, and more frequent, longer visits by provincial officials.
“I think the intention is there on both parts, but no working mechanism is there,” he said. “This isolation has to be stopped. It is time to bridge it.”
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said he is also concerned. But he has a different approach. He said the government should do more, not just to build links, but to enforce the law and actively force integration.
“They are allowing the Khmer Rouge to maintain control of areas and continue to operate against all existing laws of the country, smuggling food, oil,” he said. “They are portraying in public that the political and military structure is completely destroyed. But in some areas Khmer Rouge run and maintain political and military strength. Many have access to arms. The government needs to take strong action.”
Former fighters living in semi-autonomous zones should be forced to “move out of Pailin and Anlong Veng area, a new government administration should be put in place so there will be no division of Cambodian society,” he said.
“I’m not saying there are bad intentions or good intentions by the government,” he said. “Sometimes you need to take action in order to get peace and stability.”
Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said the basic problem is a matter of trust.
“I think efforts have been made, but it seems that each side has taken precautionary measures,” he said. “On the Khmer Rouge side, they don’t feel comfortable about being moved to other positions or locations. They seem to be reluctant to welcome people from outside. They have tried to maintain what they have and defend themselves against dilution.”
Said Youk Chhang, “It takes years to adapt to a new culture. It is not only the government but NGOs across the country. People need to provide social services, child care, vocational training. It will take a lot of effort. But more needs to be done. They grew up in the jungle.”
Some who live outside Phnom Penh downplayed the concerns of integrating the Khmer Rouge.
“I do not care about whether they trust the government,” said Keo Samuon, commander of Military Region 3, based in Kompong Speu province. “But I believe that if they did not trust the government, they would not build big houses, big farms and their children would not go to school. People are living in happiness.”