anlong veng district, Oddar Meanchey province – Farming in a pocket of ever thinning jungle, Chou Phon has to take more care than most while clearing his land.
A former Khmer Rouge soldier, the 45-year-old lost both eyes to rocket shrapnel in 1982. Blind, he feels for a tree and cuts until he can hear it giving way. Then he grabs the tree to quickly gauge it’s fall—leaping out of the way when necessary.
Eking out a living is difficult for Chou Phon, but like several other former Khmer Rouge wounded living in Anlong Veng district, he says there is one thing he will never do: beg to get by.
“I am not sick—how can I ask anyone for money?” he said at his home, 10 km outside Anlong Veng town Thursday.
His 44-year-old wife Sek Pin, who lost her left leg to a landmine in 1983, agreed.
“I have only one leg, but I can support my children…. I am determined to never lower myself to beg from anyone,” she said.
Sam Oeurn Pok, managing director of the Cambodian War Amputees Rehabilitation Society in Phnom Penh, said that in more built-up areas, it can be tough for his NGO to persuade some disabled people to attend job training, as begging is so lucrative.
“They don’t like to go [to job training] because they make more money at the market,” he said.
But professional beggars are not as common in less populated areas—particularly in regions previously controlled by the Khmer Rouge, Sam Oeurn Pok said. And there, landmine survivors are far more willing to receive job training.
Former Khmer Rouge regiment commander Moeurng Po, 47, who lost his right leg to a mine in 1995, claimed Pol Pot’s teachings prevent his former followers from begging.
“Early on, Pol Pot always instructed us about the war and how to fight. But later, he instructed us how to live, how to support ourselves,” he said.
Today, Moeurng Po farms on two hectares of land about 10 km from his home on the outskirts of Anlong Veng town, to which he travels by bicycle.
Others in Anlong Veng said the one-legged Khmer Rouge military commander Ta Mok, who died in July last year, provided their motivation.
“[Ta Mok] instructed us: ‘Before you were soldiers. Now you are disabled, but you are still on the battlefield. The soldiers are on the front lines, but we are the back lines. We are the support for the soldiers,’” Chou Phon recalled.
Chan Pim, a 67-year-old farmer and former soldier, lost his right leg and four fingers on his left hand to a landmine in 1985.
He said that, after his accident, Ta Mok put him to work as a furniture maker along with a few dozen other wounded soldiers, building desks for schools and offices.
Today he is still making furniture at the foot of the Dangkrek mountains with six other disabled former Khmer Rouge soldiers, including his 40-year-old son Chan Phon, who lost his right leg to a mine in 1998.
Chan Pim recalled the pity he felt when he first saw people seeking alms in Siem Reap town shortly following the reintegration of Ta Mok’s men in 1999.
He said he suggested that they move to Anlong Veng district where there was plenty of land to farm. But they replied that they could not survive there, and that they made $2.50 a day begging.
“I did not know how to respond to that,” Chan Pim said.
Moeurng Po said he had a similar experience in Siem Reap town two years ago, but was answered less cordially.
“I suggested that they come live near me in Anlong Veng,” he said. “But they cursed me and called me Pol Pot.”