Samlot district, Battambang Province – It was near the end of the battle and, as he and his fellow Khmer Rouge soldiers ran from government forces, Ping Dus felt a bullet slam into his abdomen, worm its way through his body and exit near his spine. He fell to the ground looking at the fighter who shot him, a government soldier perched in a tree 50 meters away. A cadre dragged Ping Dus to safety, and into a lifetime of dark memories.
“I feel very sorry for what happened in the past,” he said. “Now I am tired and I don’t want to fight anymore. We lost everything in the war.”
If it were not for the bullet that struck him, Ping Dus said, he might not even recall the battle that left him bloodied 13 years ago. There were so many battles, he said recently, leaning forward on a bench at the military headquarters in Samlot district to cradle his head.
I’m sick now, he said.
It’s not difficult to find soldiers like Ping Dus in Samlot district. Considered a safe area for wounded Khmer Rouge soldiers during the rebel movement’s long-running battle with the government in the 1980s, the maimed were left here, an area once considered the back lines of the battle.
Today, the government counts nearly 1,000 disabled people—51 of them women—among the district’s 22,061 residents. Many are one-legged. Widows head one of every seven families. When government officials helicoptered into the dense jungle near Samlot village a few months ago to hand out relief supplies and announce plans for demobilization, they were greeted by hundreds of crippled soldiers who were only too eager to show the sacrifices they made during years of warfare. Their requests for relief will be answered next month when the government is expected to discharge 15,000 soldiers as Cambodia continues to reduce its massive military.
Another 15,000 are scheduled to be released sometime next year, as the government integrates former fighters—many like Ping Dus who first battled the government as a Khmer Rouge soldier—into the peacetime life of a civilian.
The demobilization program will cut the nation’s military by one-third, to just under 100,000 soldiers. Like those at this remote jungle camp, many of the soldiers to be discharged are lame with war injuries or are too old to fight, government officials say.
The program will cost nearly $45 million, but just $7.2 million will come directly from the government. The remainder will come in the form of an $18.4 million loan from the World Bank, from funds from the World Food Program and from donor countries Japan, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Because donors resisted an earlier plan to simply hand out cash payments of nearly $1,200 to soldiers, the government’s Demobilization and Reintegration Project instead will deliver an array of supplies to each soldier, from mosquito nets to farming implements to animals or even a moto.
The soldiers also will receive a $240 cash payment, equal to about one year’s pay, based on the typical $20 per month paycheck given to a government soldier. For some, it’s a welcome release from a tour of duty that, for some, has stretched decades.
“I am thankful for what I get from the government,” said 55-year-old Ping Dus. “If the government supports me now, it means that what I did before is not meaningless.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen told the international community just before the annual donors’ meeting in June that demobilization was a government priority, and that $7.2 million would be allocated for the program.
If divided among 30,000 soldiers, the money comes to $1,500 apiece. But not every soldier will receive that much support.
Colin Gleichmann of German Technical Cooperation, or GTZ, told the Cambodia Daily last year that the demobilization funds will come to about $1,000 per soldier, after administration costs are covered.
Soldiers, however, have complained that the money is not enough to start their new lives, since it would require more to buy enough land or animals to run a profitable farm.
A private demobilization effort led by the Phnom Penh-based GEB Development Corporation, an NGO run by US citizen Geoffrey
Blume, is lobbying for more support for the soldiers. Contacted Monday, Blume said he continues to advocate a broad program to provide housing, education and farmland to former soldiers while improving the infrastructure in their villages. He has won support from several military leaders, and has worked with the Ministry of Rural Development to further his plan.
Blume is still searching for donor support, however, and has so far been excluded from the government’s demobilization effort because of his differing views on how to reintegrate soldiers into civilian life.
Ping Dus was one of the lucky ones. Hand-picked by his superiors, he was one of 1,500 soldiers to benefit from a $2.5 million pilot demobilization project last year.
Today he works a rice field near the village of Samlot, in Battambang province, although his war wounds flare up when he works too hard.
But his discharge illustrates how difficult it may be to buy and distribute aid to the soldiers, especially those living in remote areas. Ping Dus received supplies in four shipments over the course of nearly a year.
He was discharged in July, 2000, and received his cash payment, a free medical checkup and the first aid package, which consisted of 150 kg of rice, 2.55 kg of fish, 3.44 kg of cooking oil, 1 kg of salt, 1 mosquito net, 1 blanket, 1 mat and 1 krama.
Last September he received a long knife, an axe, a handhoe, a big hoe, a saw, two tents, two
hammocks, 1kg of nails, two water baskets, a boiling kettle, a rice pot, 1kg of cleaning powder, a basket and some vegetable seeds.
On Dec 12 the aid consisted of a bicycle, a blanket, a mosquito net, a mat, three skirts and a krama. His last aid package arrived April 26. He received 150 kg of rice, 6 tins of fish, a jar of cooking oil and 1 kg of salt.
As helpful as these items are, most soldiers will use them up in a few months, depending on the size of their families. To provide longer lasting support, donor money will also buy each soldier one larger aid item, perhaps a moto, a water pump, housing materials or a draft animal.
Ping Dus chose the new moto, since he lives km from Samlot village, but two weeks ago he was still waiting for the government to send it to him.
“When Svay Sitha [the government official in charge of demobilization] was here last time giving out rice, he said the soldiers would get a motorbike in August, but now August is mostly over and there’s no motorbike,” he said.
Ping Dus’ commander, sitting nearby, said he was losing patience. The government’s program has been frustrating for the soldiers because the aid comes in small portions, said Captain Sonn San.
“I wish the international donors would come to support this project directly,” he said. “The money from the government is a bit, bit, bit. There would be more transparency with the NGOs.”
At this stage, the demobilization effort resembles nothing so much as a huge shopping trip for the government, organizing the purchase and delivery of thousands of pieces of aid.
But the purchase process has been so overwhelming that it has delayed the program beyond its original starting date. Animals have been difficult to buy and move, said a World Bank official working with the government on demobilization.
“The procurement of animals is a bit complex because of the geographical spread and the quality of the animals,” said Steve Schonberger, an official at the World Bank offices in Phnom Penh.
Svay Sitha said his staff was working out the details. “So far the pledge is sufficient for this program to implement,” he said. “Now we are working on the technical aspects to implement this assistance.”
He said he plans to work with district authorities to provide training for some of the demobilized soldiers. A typical program may be like one in Kampot province, where 40 former soldiers are learning how to become truck drivers.
For now, most soldiers are willing to wait for their leaders to deliver on their promise of demobilization.
Choon Rune, 58, joined the military seven years ago when Khmer Rouge and government soldiers were going door-to-door in his S’dow village looking for new recruits. His sons joined the forces of the new coalition government. Stopped by a different group of soldiers on a different day, Choon Rune was forced to join the Khmer Rouge. He and his sons never fought each other, and today live near each other again, he said.
On the day that RCAF Deputy Commander-in-Chief Pol Saroeun choppered into Samlot village to talk about demobilization with the soldiers, he told them that the fighting was over and that the soldiers would start new lives as peaceful civilians.
“I was very happy to hear his speech,” Choon Rune said.
Despite criticism from some who think that the government is not doing enough for the soldiers, He is looking forward to demobilization, even if it takes longer than expected.
“I don’t think the leaders would cheat the people here. They would follow their word of what they have promised,” he said.