Senator Nhiek Bun Chhay, a former Funcinpec general who commanded resistance forces during the factional fighting three years ago, says he does not dare visit his former troops along the northwestern border.
He is too scared he will be accused of forming an illegal army and causing problems in the current coalition government. So, the former general has not visited his troops at the border since resistance forces put down their weapons and were integrated into the government army in late 1998.
“I have been instructed by my comrades not to go to see my people along the border,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said earlier this month. “If I go there, I will be charged by CPP’s generals of establishing military bases and gathering former soldiers to fight against the CPP.”
Several of Nhiek Bun Chhay’s former army colleagues, who were considered to be the strongmen of Funcinpec, share Nhiek Bun Chhay’s anxieties of visiting the border. With the two main political parties working together again, the former generals say they are reluctant to do anything that reminds people of the past.
Hundreds died in the factional fighting that broke out between forces belonging to then co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh of the Funcinpec party and co-Prime Minister Hun Sen of the Cambodian People’s Party.
The generals who led the troops loyal to the prince continued to do battle for more than a year when they fled to border areas in the northwest in 1997 and 1998. Many of them were eventually forced into exile or hide in the jungles as CPP forces gained control of most territory, though well-armed resistance units held out in bastions such as Samlot in Battambang province and O’Smach in Oddar Meanchey province.
While sporadic fighting continued, Nhiek Bun Chhay, Prince Ranariddh and two others were convicted in absentia in March 1998 of being traitors. They were later amnestied by King Norodom Sihanouk, but Nhiek Bun Chhay only returned to the country and the government fold last year when he was made a senator, which carries the perk of parliamentary immunity.
The generals say that if they went to visit their former troops, they should bring them money. But right now, they don’t have enough funds to provide for them.
“When I meet the victim’s families, they always ask me to give them money to hold a funeral for their husband or relatives,” said a prominent Funcinpec general, who asked not to be named. “I told them I have no money at all. I frequently ask people in Phnom Penh to provide funds for funerals, but I have no reply.”
General Mean Sarin, a Funcinpec-appointed deputy commander-in-chief in charge of infantry, said he is willing to see his men in Oddar Meanchey’s Samraong district, but he has no money to buy them anything. Most are poor. “I could not see them empty handed,” he said.
The rank-and-file soldiers who served under the generals and saw them as their heroes say they are disappointed that their leaders have not come to see them.
“I need their help,” said Ien Khoeun, a former Funcinpec soldier of Military Region 5 who said he has no land to build a farm. “I want them to come see us. Since returning to the government, I haven’t seen any of our leaders visit us. However, I still pity my former commanders.”
Bun Seng, the CPP-appointed commander of Military Region 5, said it’s no problem if the former Funcinpec generals want to see their former troops, as long as they make the visit public. “If they go secretly, they would be suspected of doing something wrong,” said Bun Seng, who is based in Battambang town. “We are now at peace and working together so we must do everything publicly.”
Nhiek Bun Chhay said it is not the right time for him to see his troops, as he is busy in the Senate. “They have followed me a long time so my thoughts are always with them” he said. “I hope I will meet them again soon.”
A former Funcinpec general who is now a government official said he would rather live in the border area with his men than stay in Phnom Penh, and hopes he will be able to return to his former position as general after the next election. “I was a soldier for years so it’s hard for me to enjoy myself in the city while my men stay in the jungle,” he said.
Van Buntha, a former Funcinpec soldier living near the border, said he lost his rice field and home because he participated in the factional fighting.
He is angry because while he was risking his life to help Funcinpec, the royalists brought in Cambodians living abroad to take top positions in the government instead of rewarding people like him. “Where there is a war they call me, but when they are successful, they ask me to stay in the jungle,” Van Buntha said. “This is a lesson from them and it is an experience I will tell my children to not follow my way.”