o’beichoen district, Banteay Meanchey province – RCAF captain Bun Sovann placed the photograph of his murdered son and wife on the stump that was once his right leg and recounted with bitterness how his loyalty to Funcinpec has resulted in nothing but personal loss.
While serving with the Funcinpec resistance forces in February 1998, his wife, 18-year-old son and their bodyguard were taken from their house in Koen Trei village and shot in the head by unidentified assassins.
A month later he lost his leg while on patrol with the resistance, he said.
Reintegration into the government in January 1999 ended Bun Sovann’s fighting, but it has not brought the hoped for peace dividend. He squarely lays the blame on Funcinpec officials whom he said have abandoned their followers, leaving them in poverty.
“It’s not just me,” he said. “All the soldiers here are disappointed with Funcinpec. Even though they know our situation, they still ignore us.”
Bun Sovann and many other Funcinpec followers here say their leaders have let them down, forgetting rank-and-file members since peace was brokered and the 1998 election brought the royalist party into the coalition government with its former foe, the ruling CPP.
The Funcinpec members say they are so outside the orbit of the royalist party since fighting ended that they were not even aware of the Funcinpec two-day party congress, which begins Tuesday in Phnom Penh.
However, if they were in attendance at the congress, they would have a question for Funcinpec’s leaders: why has the party they fought for forgotten them?
Funcinpec loyalist Mao Thy lowered his eyes as he described how his situation has been “hopeless” since he made the fateful decision to call troops to follow him into the jungle in the wake of the factional fighting that broke out in July 1997.
Four years ago, a power struggle erupted in gunfire between forces loyal to then-First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and the forces loyal to then-Second Prime Minister Hun Sen
Some 70 soldiers in the area heeded Mao Thy’s call to take up arms for Funcinpec, he said last week at his home in Sisophon town, Banteay Meanchey province.
The loyalty of those who died, were injured or survived the short-lived resistance after the July 1997 fighting has been forgotten and party leaders have ignored the poverty and hardship faced by its former fighters, Mao Thy said.
Now the widows of the men he called to fight in 1997 curse him and Funcinpec for a loss that has never been compensated, Mao Thy said.
“I don’t know how to answer when they blame me for their loved one’s death. All the mistake is on me. All I can do is raise my hands and apologize,” said Mao Thy.
“We fought for all the Funcinpec officials and they have good positions now,” he said. “But I don’t know why they have never looked after us.”
Tol Lah, secretary-general of Funcinpec, said Sunday that Senate Vice President Nhiek Bun Chhay, the former commander of Funcinpec forces in 1997, and other officials have visited O’Smach and other former resistance areas on the Thai border and are aware of their supporters’ problems.
But Tol Lah said that pity is all the party can spare for its followers as poverty is a general problem for many people in Cambodia.
“I understand their difficulty living in this area and it is my duty to work on this with the authorities,” said Tol Lah.
Prince Sisowath Sirirath, co-Minister of Defense, said the same problems are being faced by all soldiers in Cambodia as the country’s military budget is cut back.
“It’s not just Funcinpec. Any soldier would feel the same way,” he said.
Three Funcinpec generals said recently that they wish to visit their former soldiers, but fear the CPP will suspect they are trying to muster armed forces again.
Other Funcinpec followers complain they have lost their former positions, have had land confiscated and have been given jobs that are mostly without any real substance.
But Mao Thy said he still counts himself among the lucky.
It’s the families of the dead, the injured, and landless soldiers who Funcinpec should remember at this year’s congress, he said.
“When we had problems we cooperated and helped each other. But now when there is peace, they have kicked us out and do not want to know the people who helped them get their positions,” Mao Thy said.
While it was Funcinpec troops who bore the brunt of the factional fighting in Phnom Penh and the fighting at the Thai border, it has been Funcinpec’s civilian officials who have reaped the rewards in terms of jobs and privileges, Bun Sovann said.
Living comfortably in Phnom Penh as part of the coalition government, Funcinpec officials now have no time and little sympathy for their former soldiers, he said.
“We followed [Prince Ranariddh] and fought for him. Now his officials have many good positions but why do they not have thoughts for their followers? This is the question in my heart,” he said
“If they are scared of the CPP, they could write a letter asking us how we are and what we need,” he said. “But they have not even done that.”
Other former Funcinpec soldiers said that even a change in party leadership may be too little too late to improve the party’s tarnished image. News of Prince Norodom Sirivudh’s return to politics was treated with scant interest.
“I am hopeless even if [Sirivudh] returns to Funcinpec. Many other Funcinpec officials have treated us badly. We cannot forget that. This is their bad spirit,” one former soldier living in Prey Chan village said.
Tem Sophat, 52, initially fought for the Funcinpec resistance but returned home to Snoultret village, O’Beichoen district in December 1997, his wife Suon Sen said.
Although he made it clear he was finished with the resistance, there was suspicion in the area that Tem Sophat was going to rejoin the resistance after harvesting his three-hectare rice crop.
In March 1998 Tem Sophat, his daughter and a young boy staying at his house died when soldiers armed with AK-47 assault rifles and B40 rockets attacked his small wooden house late at night, Suon Sen said.
When she went to harvest her crop in May 1998, she was informed by a local military commander that the land now belonged to him.
No one has been arrested for the death of her husband, and now Soun Sen is landless and must chop wood in the heavily mined jungle that surrounds her village to support her six children.
Klim Klee, RCAF deputy commander of Battalion 361 in Banteay Meanchey province, was a Funcinpec loyalist but did not follow his comrades into the jungle in 1997. And subsequent events tell him it was the right choice, he said.
Troops who did not follow Funcinpec have been treated well by the government, while those who fought with the government have lost positions of influence in RCAF and had their land and houses confiscated, said Klim Klee.
“Their careers were drowned after they came back,” said Klim Klee, noting he still has his RCAF position and has not suffered. “It will be difficult for Funcinpec here at election time. The people have suffered too much.”
Un Vuth, an RCAF Division 12 soldier, said he still supports his Funcinpec commanders but considers himself “lucky” he did not join the resistance in 1997.
“I cannot say I am happy I did not go to the jungle.” Un Vuth said. “But I see what happened to my friends.”