preah vihear temple, Preah Vihear province – A mixed force of RCAF troops and newly defected hard-line Khmer Rouge control this historic mountaintop temple, testimony to the stunning battlefield gains by the government.
Top military officials led by Chea Saran, director of operations for the RCAF general staff, on Monday afternoon brought cold drinks and dried fish by helicopter to the approximately 300 soldiers watching over the surrounding mountainsides on the northern border with Thailand.
“The defections here are a sign of peace and a symbol of the end of the Pol Pot regime,” Chea Saran told a group of reporters amid the mountaintop ruins.
The temple sprawls across a dramatic escarpment rising out of the heavily forested Dangrek Mountains. The view from the ruins extends for 10 to 15 km into Thailand and Cambodia.
This was the first face-to-face meeting between top RCAF officials and the leaders of the Preah Vihear defections, soldiers here said. Khmer Rouge troops, virtually all of whom were outfitted in green fatigues and kramas, said they have not received any supplies yet from the government.
During a meeting between the RCAF military delegation and the top leaders of the defectors, Chea Saran said his first priority was to confirm the number of soldiers here and to bring supplies to them. Three Thai border officials in black fatigues joined the meeting. One was a high-ranking general, defectors said.
Khmer Rouge defectors met with RCAF soldiers Sunday afternoon after declaring their pro-government stance by radio.
The defectors, who said they have controlled the strategic mountaintop since 1993, are from Khmer Rouge units stationed in the area. About 65 km to the west is Anlong Veng, which defectors described as their military operations base for the last eight years.
Im Heung, who identified himself as the commander of all hard-line military forces east of Anlong Veng, has commanded more than 1,700 soldiers since 1980. About 600 soldiers have defected with him, the 49-year-old claimed.
He said he will appeal to the remainder of his soldiers who have not defected to come over to the government side. “We want to be a part of national reconciliation, too,” Im Heung said.
RCAF commanders said Monday afternoon that Ta Mok remains in the country after a failed attempt to seek asylum in Thailand. Chea Saran said Thai authorities have sealed the border.
RCAF troops, cooperating with new defectors, were advancing Monday into the “Choam” zone of eastern Anlong Veng. The area of Anlong Veng is made of many villages that have lived under the control of the Khmer Rouge for years. It’s believed to be home to as many as 50,000 people.
The hard-line troops have set-up a base about 2 km from the Thai border and roughly 15 km north of Anlong Veng village.
Dom Hak, director of military intelligence for RCAF general staff, said fighting 5 km north of the village persisted on Monday.
The fighting, he said, is evidence that Ta Mok is still in Cambodia.
However, Dom Hak expressed confidence that the Khmer Rouge would never seize Anlong Veng village again—as they did in 1994 after RCAF won the jungle hamlet for a brief time.
However, a Western military analyst said Monday in Phnom Penh the government should dig in to defend their territorial gains. He said he expects the remaining hard-line guerrillas to mount a counter-attack, perhaps after the heavy rains begin in two months.
He pointed out that in 1994 the government lost both Anlong Veng and Pailin only weeks after capturing them.
“They’ve used such tactics before,” the analyst noted. “There was virtually no fighting at the temple, which indicates to me that the Khmer Rouge have something up their sleeve.”