pailin municipality, Battambang province – As border town Poipet enjoys relative prosperity amid freewheeling commerce and opportunity, Pailin is struggling to survive a severe drought, a desertion of its casinos and the legacy of more than 30 years of shortsighted environmental mismanagement, a range of local residents said.
“The drought has made living very difficult for people living in Pailin,” said Keut Sothea, deputy governor of Pailin municipality, who estimates that 90 percent of the local population earns a living by farming. “Our people have no money. People now are borrowing money from banks and rich men just to plant next year’s crop. They will need to be successful in order to pay their debts.”
Keut Sothea believes that Pailin must focus on the future and not the past.
“People can’t mine stones or do logging because that is no more,” the deputy governor said. “To attract more tourists and promote people’s living, we need to push the policy of making business. We need irrigation and a road system.”
But few residents may be able to wait for such boosts to Pailin’s infrastructure. Lath Nhoung, a Pailin municipal official and former Khmer Rouge soldier, looked at Sunday’s rainfall as “not enough to farm, but better than past months.”
“More farmers are going into debt because their crops were ruined. If they face another drought it will be serious disaster.”
Keo Phoeun, police chief of Sala Krov district, said that 90 percent of his district’s crop was fruitless this year.
Mai Mak, deputy governor of Pailin municipality, said that roughly 75 percent of all crops in the area were destroyed by the drought.
“We need help from the Cambodian Red Cross to support our villagers who have a food shortage,” Mai Mak said. “We have no irrigation. We can only wait for the rain.”
The former Khmer Rouge stronghold, once a famously resource-rich region of glittering gemstones and massive hardwood forests, is today a paradise lost—a drought-stricken agrarian experiment most remarkable for scarred mountains, lethal land mines and painful memories.
Take Soeun Koeun, for example. The 42-year-old soldier turned farmer remembers his 16 years of service in battle-hardened Battalion 415 of the former Khmer Rouge army. His troop once roamed the Thai-Cambodian border area, ambushing its enemy and then slipping back into the safety of hidden mountain enclaves.
And he can hardly forget the day 12 years ago when he stepped on a land mine while tilling his field of soybeans. After the smoke from the explosion cleared, he looked down and saw that his left foot was gone at the ankle. In its place was a gory vision of bone and blood and unspeakable pain.
Although he said his “soul was in shock,” he never lost consciousness. He recalls waiting in the field for the Khmer Rouge doctor to arrive and thinking of his wife, pregnant with their first child—and how their lives had just changed forever.
Today, in his small, wooden home next door to an abandoned gas station on Route 10 outside Pailin, Soeun Koeun removes his hard-plastic limb with slow ceremony. The heavily tattooed father of three explained how he fashioned his first prosthetic from an old boot, an army belt and a piece of wood. He says he has no choice: Though handicapped he must continue to farm his 1.2-hectare parcel of land just to survive.
“Everybody in my company was injured in at least one place,” he said. “As you see, I cannot move very far. Now living conditions are very bad.”
The land between Pailin and Battambang is one of the most densely mined areas in the world. A report from the Cambodian Mine Action Center in Pailin says that 62,580 UXOs have been destroyed since 2000.
“The people who move here are very poor. They know it is dangerous but they try to farm anyway. We cannot stop them,” said Kouk Vuthy, deputy manager of Demining Unit 3. “It is a big issue for development. The area cannot grow if the mines aren’t cleared.”
Soeun Koeun knows there are mines. He points out his front door and over a ravine to a place where he claims a minefield is still buried. But his worries are elsewhere. His greatest fear is not making enough to feed his children or keep them in school.
“There are two types of people in Pailin: Old people and newcomers,” said Soeun Koeun. “Life is hard for everyone. I don’t know what the future is.”
Sim An, an 24-year-old moto driver, remembers when he moved to Pailin with his older brother in 1996 to work in the gem mines. For several years, they sifted through silt with wicker baskets for sapphires, rubies and low-grade diamonds. He tells of his greatest find—a 22-karat sapphire that his employer sold to a Thai gem dealer for $500.
Such stones are all gone now due to over-mining and dubious foreign entrepreneurs. Sim An, who once convinced his nine-member family to join him, now echoes the skepticism of others trying to eke out a living in Pailin.
“Once we did well, but there is no more business here,” Sim An said. “The gems are finished. The logging is finished. There are no jobs, and it is very hard to make money.”
Frustrated and admittedly “very sad,” Sim An abandoned mining in order to transport gamblers about 10 km from Pailin to the casinos at the Thai border. Like many, he held mistaken hopes that the casinos would generate much-needed revenue for Pailin.
“The casinos do not hold much interest for people,” said Keut Sothea. “They do not affect people’s living because we prohibit them from betting in them. Before the anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh we had more tourists gambling here, but since then we have less and it is very noticeable.”
On this day the once-thriving casinos are nearly silent. A handful of middle-aged tourists speak Thai and wager in Thai baht—high rollers they are not. The atmosphere, which is more bingo parlor than wide-open border gambling den, is dampened by a local regulation that requires Thai tourists to return to their country before an 8 pm curfew.
“The border is peaceful. The business went to Poipet,” said an official at the Office of Checkpoint of International Border, Pailin Municipality, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Thailand set up a camera to monitor who crosses the border. Now, Thai businessmen are afraid to come.”
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)