More than a decade ago, Cheng Sreang opened a restaurant on land near the RCAF Military Region I base in Stung Treng province, anticipating brisk business feeding hungry soldiers.
What he did not anticipate was that his high-ranking military customers would consume feasts of fish and pork and countless liters of beer and Hennessy cognac without paying.
By 2002, RCAF generals had racked up a debt of $26,332 and ran the Kolab Stung Treng Restaurant into the ground, leaving the restaurateur penniless and indebted to his suppliers, Cheng Sreang said Wednesday.
“Until now, nobody has ever paid me,” he said by telephone.
In 1997 and 1998, during the final years of the Khmer Rouge’s fall, the region’s former commander Seuy Keo frequently entertained soldiers and foreigners at his restaurant, Cheng Sreang said.
“They drank whatever they wanted, from Coke to beer to Hennessy,” he said.
“Among other visitors, His Excellency [RCAF Deputy Commander-in-Chief] Meas Sophea received free food and drinks from the restaurant because his local officials said they would pay for all the food later on with the [military]’s money.”
It was during those two years that Seuy Keo rang up a bill of $10,903, he said.
On March 6, 1999, Seuy Keo called a meeting to transfer his financial responsibilities to his RCAF successor General Thav Kong, according to a copy of the meeting minutes.
At that time, $26,012 was owed to the Kolab Stung Treng Restaurant for “guests for the integration process,” the copy stated. It added that the region paid $14,957 to the restaurant, leaving $11,055 in debt.
“The remainder is transferred to Thav Kong as new commander and other generals to deal with Kolap Stung Treng Restaurant,” it read.
On taking command of the region and the bill, Thav Kong agreed to cease charging Cheng Sreang the $2,000 annual rent on the restaurant, which was on military land, until the debt was paid.
Thav Kong, however, generated new deficits at the restaurant and, upon his death in 2002, had managed to raise the debt by $13,065.
By Aug 27, 2002, the military owed a total of $23,968 to the restaurant, a statement of military meeting minutes read.
According to the documents obtained this week, RCAF Deputy Commander-in-Chief Meas Sophea approved an order for rank and file soldiers to fork over a portion of their salaries to pay for their superiors’ restaurant bills.
In a Dec 12, 2002, statement, signed and sealed by the current commander of Military Region I, General Huot Chheang, Meas Sophea approved the order to deduct 2,000 riel from the monthly salaries of soldiers throughout the region, which includes Stung Treng, Ratanakkiri and Mondolkiri provinces.
The order would be in place from November to January 2003, “because the military region owed money on expenditures on receptions and expenditures on others and the military region has no income to repay those debts,” the document said.
Contacted Thursday, Meas Sophea confirmed he had ordered his soldiers to pay the restaurant’s tab.
“I ordered some deductions to offset the old debt, but later stopped taking soldiers’ money,” he said, adding that he made the order out of “pity.”
Meas Sophea denied dining on his officers’ expense. “I had my per diem when I visited provinces,” he said.
General Huot Chheang said Wednesday that he had asked Meas Sophea to endorse the December 2002 order to deduct soldiers’ salaries and pay off the debt.
An identical second order was made between May and June 2003, Commander Huot Chheang said.
In those five months, about 30,469,000 riel ($7,617) was collected from the region’s soldiers, he said.
But Cheng Sreang said he has never seen that money. Irate, the restaurant owner brought his case to the attention of RCAF Commander-in-Chief Ke Kim Yan in a letter dated Aug 16, 2003.
“Please, Your Excellency, find justice for me,” his letter read.
Huot Chheang explained on Wednesday that money from the five-month collection period went to the military’s other debtors. He said he could not repay Cheng Sreang because the costs incurred at the restaurant were a private debt.
“The old debt is the old commanders’ responsibility to pay. I am only responsible for any expense since the time I started working,” Huot Chheang said.
Calls placed to Ke Kim Yan went unanswered Thursday, but his deputy Meas Sophea agreed with the Region I commander.
“The problem is over. We cannot pay the former person’s debt,” Meas Sophea said. “If anybody wants money, they should go ask the debtee for it.”
Former Region 1 commander Seuy Keo, who is now a CPP senator, also shirked responsibility Thursday and directed the debt right back to RCAF.
During his command, he said, at least 1,000 Khmer Rouge fighters were taken into the government’s fold under his authority.
“I was responsible for feeding them and taking care of them. The government could not help them on time so I managed to feed them and treat them well,” Seuy Keo said.
“All the expenses were not to enrich me. I did it for the army. Any demand to have me pay is [impossible]. I won’t pay,” he said.
Co-Minister of Defense Tea Banh took no sides Thursday, saying only that deducting soldiers’ salaries for official expenses was not the RCAF’s policy.
Crushed by the weight of debt, Cheng Sreang finally closed the Kolab Stung Treng restaurant in 2002.
He said he owes at least $4,500 to one local supplier, and much more to others. Whenever he leaves the province, he must now leave his son behind as collateral.
“When I visit my village in Kompong Cham [province], my son must be home in Stung Treng so the debtors are sure I come back.”
Cheng Sreang said he only asks that the military pay him some of the money owed to him and not necessarily all of it at once.
“[Not] paying me has made our lives hell,” he said. “I no longer have any more tears to flow.”