The Final Defection Of KR, Officials Say
anlong veng, Oddar Meanchey province – With a ceremonial changing of uniforms and a visit here by top level Phnom Penh defense officials, the government and former rebels on Tuesday sealed a deal aimed at ending the Khmer Rouge forever.
Hundreds of haggard soldiers squatted or sat in the sun Tuesday in what was the last rebel stronghold, shading their eyes as they were sworn into the army they had spent years fighting.
The leader of December’s final hard-liner defections, Khem Nguon, slipped off the faded Khmer Rouge fatigues and Mao cap he wore Tuesday for what he said would be the rest of his life.
Defense co-Minister Tea Banh declared long-time rebel military chief Ta Mok incapable of raising an army and said Anlong Veng’s days as a battlefield are over.
In his speech, Tea Banh said the integration of 1,700 troops should be the last ever and said Anlong Veng would be “transformed from a battlefield into an economic development zone.”
Chea Keo, one of several rebel commanders who defected a year ago as the vanguard of last March’s Anlong Veng mutiny, explained Tuesday that pressure by Ta Mok prevented this last wave of rebels from breaking ranks until December.
“This is the last integration of the Khmer Rouge although it’s rather late,” said Chea Keo, who wore an RCAF brigadier general’s star Tuesday.
The Anlong Veng mutiny broke the back of the already weakened Khmer Rouge guerrilla force and foreshadowed the defections of the rebels’ last military commanders in December.
Em Soth, 45, a Khmer Rouge soldier for 30 years—the same length of time the rebels waged armed conflict—said he had no qualms about defecting. “I trust the government, I defected to the government, I believe in the government. Now it’s time for the government to help develop my home.”
Four anti-aircraft artillery pieces were hauled out and lined up as props for Tuesday’s ceremony, as were dozens of Chinese and Russian assault rifles, some bearing bayonets.
After the ceremony, Tea Banh told reporters the government continues to pursue Ta Mok.
Asked if Ta Mok, too, might one day defect to the government, Tea Banh said, “I cannot predict whether he will or not….But to tell the truth, I wouldn’t want to defect to someone who wants to arrest me.”
Tea Banh and the other officials handed the defecting troops green nylon backpacks containing new RCAF uniforms.
Some observers noted that with debate over an international trial continuing to stir angered reaction from former rebel leaders, it was perhaps fitting in Anlong Veng that the new uniforms were put on over old ones, despite the searing heat beating down on the dusty village.
“The Khmer Rouge is dead,” noted one former guerrilla. But he said he would keep his old uniform “just in case.”
Rebel representative Sang Kong, in his address to Phnom Penh officials, said troops would change their rallying cry from the communist-inspired “pdach-nha!” meaning “promise,” to “Chaiyo!” commonly used today in political rallies to mean “long live.”
Tuesday’s ceremony in Anlong Veng marked the second day of a whirlwind tour by Phnom Penh’s top officials into the former Khmer Rouge heartland to officially integrate 3,500 soldiers.
Accompanying Tea Banh were top defense and RCAF officials, including Defense co-Minister Prince Sisowath Sirirath, General Meas Sophea and General Khann Savoeun.
The Communist Party of Kampuchea, nicknamed the Khmer Rouge in the 1960s, is blamed for the deaths of more than 1 million people during its 1975-1978 Democratic Kampuchea regime.
Anlong Veng until last March was the nerve center for hard-line military operations for eight years. The Anlong Veng hard-liners weathered various crises in the ranks during the ’90s. Former Khmer Rouge deputy premier Ieng Sary in 1996 sapped the rebels’ lucrative gem and timber trade when he led a mass defection in Pailin. A bloody fallout between Anlong Veng leaders in June 1997 saw the execution of former Democratic Kampuchea defense minister Son Sen. Ta Mok soon after seized power from long-time leader Pol Pot.
The government in late 1997 established a clandestine contact with the Anlong Veng rebels. In late March, about 2,000 hard-line troops mutinied in Anlong Veng and Preah Vihear Temple, about 60 km to the east, delivering both outposts into government hands.
A little over a month later, government forces, guided by rebel defectors, smashed Ta Mok’s northern fallback of Mountain 200, scattering his troops and sending tens of thousands of civilians under their control fleeing over the border into Thailand.
The tattered troops defected in one final deal on Dec 4, precipitating a return of civilian refugees.
However, reports surfaced Tuesday that Anlong Veng leadership has pressured many returnees to return to Anlong Veng against their will, despite their being from other parts of the country.
“Most of the people here are not residents of Anlong Veng, but their commanders are keeping them in the ex-Khmer Rouge fold as a bargaining chip,” explained one foreign aid worker. “Now Phnom Penh knows it cannot mess with Anlong Veng, just as it cannot mess with Pailin.”
(Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse)
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