Wary Rebels Warn Of No Guarantees
samlot district, Battambang province – Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng on Monday welcomed defecting Khmer Rouge soldiers and families into the government fold for the second time, saying their reintegration is a guarantee against the return of the Khmer Rouge.
But just over two years after most of these former rebels went through a similar integration, some cautioned they could still return to the jungle once again if the political situation changes.
“The second [integration] will possibly be harder to do than the first,” said Iem Phan, a rebel leader reintegrated during a ceremony here Monday.
Asked why, he told reporters, “I’d better not say.”
A former Khmer Rouge commander who first defected with to the government with Ieng Sary in 1996, Iem Phan—then an RCAF division commander in Samlot—broke away in August 1997 and resumed fighting against government forces.
He became deputy commander of the renewed Khmer Rouge resistance in the area until the defection of the last remaining rebel commanders in December.
In light of the country’s recent soul-searching over whether a tribunal of former Khmer Rouge leaders is worth braving in the face of warnings of renewed civil war, Iem Phan said he would weigh the matter seriously before deciding whether to follow militants into war or remain with the government.
“If Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan and the Pailin stronghold appeal to us to fight the government, I will be quiet and think about my decision for a while,” he said.
Defectors largely said Monday that they do not support a trial, noting that they are not familiar with evidence against the leaders and saying that the process could lead to more fighting.
Monday’s ceremony in the former front-line town of Ta Sanh was to officially reintegrate nearly 1,800 Khmer Rouge troops and their families, although officials said they lacked the transportation to bring more than 600 troops to the ceremony.
Sitting in rows about 20-men deep with their hands clasped between their knees, defectors clad in RCAF fatigues listened to speeches by Sar Kheng, Military Region 5 Commander Bun Seng, Battambang Governor Ung Samy and Iem Phan.
Pailin’s Second Deputy Governor Ieng Vuth also showed up, just three days after his father, former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary, renewed a warning that a tribunal of Khmer Rouge leaders could reignite civil war.
Sar Kheng, who presided over the ceremony, said Monday’s proceedings marked a new peace. He also made no mention of 1996’s ill-fated integration that was led by Ieng Sary.
“Everybody returning to the country is very meaningful because we can end the past and prevent the Khmer Rouge from returning to power,” the deputy prime minister said. About 14,000 Samlot refugees from a camp just over the Thai border are expected to begin returning Friday, according to the UN. The refugees had fled Samlot in 1997.
Sar Kheng added that the government is prepared to return all rank and positions that defectors left behind in 1997.
But Bun Seng, the newly appointed commander of Battambang-based Military Region 5, appeared to admonish Cambodia’s political leaders, saying they should have learned their lesson a long time ago about renewing civil war.
“This is the second reintegration,” the two-star CPP-appointed general said. “Do not let it happen a third time.”
Samlot on Dec 4 defected with remaining hard-liners from Anlong Veng in a deal that was hailed as spelling the end of the Khmer Rouge.
Defecting soldiers on Monday said Samlot’s return to resistance in August 1997—just after the CPP and Funcinpec violently fell out of their coalition arrangement—was motivated both by a desire to preserve their logging interests and to show support for Prince Norodom Ranariddh after the factional fighting of July 1997.
Iem Phan blamed the first defection’s failure on CPP commanders who sent soldiers against the Samlot-based RCAF Division 16 in the wake of the factional fighting that raked Phnom Penh’s streets and spread to the provinces.
Samlot has been a seat of rebellion against Phnom Penh governments for most of the last 30 years. The Khmer Rouge were allied with Funcinpec’s army throughout the 1980s against the Hanoi-backed government led by the party that eventually became the CPP.
Iem Phan, who wore a brigadier general’s star on his shoulders Monday, and defecting soldiers said they now trust the CPP-led government’s good will in the new defection deal.
But they did not guarantee that this integration would be a lasting success.
Top Vuth, a soldier for the last 20 years, noted that logging disputes were key in leading to Samlot’s 1997 secession and cautioned that there is no certainty that Samlot will stay in the government fold.
Instead, defectors put the responsibility for the success of the reintegration squarely on the shoulders of the government.
“I will not do anything that goes against the government, so [the success of the reintegration] depends on the government,” said Sor Soeun, 51, who was a Khmer Rouge soldier from 1979 to 1993.
Also attending Monday’s ceremony was Meas Muth, the commander of Samlot’s forces during their latest 17 months of resistance, National Police Director-General Hok Lundy, Secretary of State for Interior Prum Sokha, Minister of Environment Mok Mareth and top armed forces officials including Meas Sophea, Pol Saroeun, Ko Chhean and Chea Saran.
Defense attaches and political officers from the UN and about 10 countries looked on.
The two deputy commander in chiefs formerly aligned with the 1980s resistance, Khann Savoeun and Khem Sophon, were absent.