Pailin province authorities are trying to bring home about 40 villagers who officials, villagers and a human rights group say were lured by false promises to join the armed forces in Preah Vihear province.
Volunteers were taken by trucks early in the morning of April 20 to Mom Bai in Choam Ksan district—the area where Preah Vihear, Oddar Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces meet—after they were promised land and payment to work as cooks, construction workers or soldiers, villagers and representatives of local rights group Adhoc said. All pointed an accusatory finger at two village chiefs.
“Villagers told me the [Bai Sei] village chief Him Hoeurn told the villagers they would provide them with plots of land and construction jobs…at Preah Vihear, and then when they got there, they were registered to join the armed forces,” Adhoc provincial coordinator Chhoun Makkara said.
Stung Trong commune chief Veur Rorm said he is seeking explanations from Him Hoeurn and Dai Saath village chief Mul Saran, but that they have been unreachable since they apparently organized the villagers’ departure. He added that he reported the issue to Pailin provincial authorities who were in touch with Preah Vihear authorities to organize the return of the villagers. Pailin provincial military police chief Noung Vanny said he was also investigating and seeking an explanation from the two village chiefs.
Kok Mom, 31, left with other volunteers on April 20, but her health forced her to return to her village shortly after. She then informed her neighbors of the situation.
Villagers live in tents as they have not yet received land or payment for work, she said. All the villagers have had to enroll in RCAF and work for the military as cooks or as manual laborers, she said. Some agreed to it because they did not have jobs back home, but not all were aware of this requirement before they left their villages, she added.
Even if they agreed to it, some should not have been allowed to join the military because they are underage, villagers argued. Adhoc has received complaints from two families who say their teenage sons are now enrolled, Mr Chhoun Makkara said, adding there might be more complaints to come.
“My son Yoeurn Veath, 16, left home on April 20 with his friend Than Thet, 14, along with other young people, after the village chief, Him Hoeurn, announced they were seeking volunteers in my village,” said Sok Chea, 36. “He did not warn me before he left. I know he did not want to be a soldier, and they tricked him.”
Than Thet’s father, Top Than, 66, said the village chief has organized several such convoys to Preah Vihear since February, luring 30 villagers each time with promises of employment.
The families have not been in touch with their sons since April 20 but received news from Ms Kok Mom when she returned home from Preah Vihear.
“I saw Yoeurn Veath and Than Thet. They have the uniforms of soldiers at the border, and all villagers with me were registered to join the troops,” Ms Kok Mom said.
The 1997 Law on General Statutes for the Military Personnel of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces specifies that one must have turned 18 years old before enrolling in the military.
RCAF Division 3 Commander Major General Srey Dek, who is stationed at Preah Vihear temple, said he was not aware of any new recruits from Pailin and that there is “no plan to recruit new soldiers.”
(Additional reporting by Isabelle Roughol)