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For Cambodia’s hardened guerrillas, the end of annual blood-letting

January 13, 1997

TOEK SOK, Cambodia (AP) _ For the first time in nearly 20 years, Khmer Rouge guerrillas in this village nestled among jungled hills near the Thai frontier did not greet the coming of the dry season by preparing for war.

The old and disabled are not making poisoned bamboo spikes, homemade landmines or grenades. Women aren’t preparing food and ammunition for the fighters. And children don’t dread the sudden sounds of government attacks.

The people of Toek Sok no longer speak of conflict. They want development: schools for their children, pagodas and hospitals, said Phan Chuy, a 36-year-old mother of four.

For these onetime revolutionaries in remote northwestern Cambodia, the yearly bloodletting that characterized war in Indochina _ the dry season offensive and counter-attack _ is over.

``Before everyone was afraid, especially during the dry season,″ said Chup Sopheap, a 39-year-old guerrilla who recently defected to the government with several thousand other Khmer Rouge fighters in the Samlot district.

In previous years, the government army took advantage of the end of the monsoon rains in mid-December by moving in heavy equipment and troops to attack Khmer Rouge jungle and mountain strongholds in the northwest.

In the government offensive a year ago, the largest in recent history, some 20,000 soldiers were deployed to assault the strongholds of Pailin, Klar Nap Village and An Se Pass. But despite its superior power, the army suffered some 2,500 killed or wounded when the Khmer Rouge struck back.

Rather than succumbing to war, the austere Marxist movement that terrorized Cambodia in the mid-1970s began to unravel through peace talks and a split between dissident Khmer Rouge guerrillas and hardliners loyal to leader Pol Pot.

Some 10,000 fighters have defected to the government, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen says. The remaining 3,000 hardliners have been pushed to the strongly defended northwestern base of Anlong Veng, where the Pol Pot loyalists may well make their last stand.

``This time last year we were busy preparing bamboo spikes, food for the front lines, ammunition, so that we could launch a counter-attack to the government’s offensive,″ said Chup Sopheap, the ex-guerrilla, holding his 4-year-old daughter on his left hip.

Children still went to school during the dry season, which runs to early May, but were pulled out of classes when guerrillas reported government rocket fire or approaching helicopters, he said.

Protected by rugged terrain and normally outside the range of government rockets and artillery fire, Toek Sok village in the province of Battambang for years served as a key supply base for the guerrillas.

Residents say they were under the control of a top Khmer Rouge leader, Nuon Chea, now rumored to be seriously ill or perhaps dead.

The area is legendary among Cambodian revolutionaries since it was here in 1967 that peasants rose up in armed struggle against a forced collection of rice by government officials.

Hundreds of farmers are believed to have died in what is known as the Samlot Rebellion, now widely regarded as the beginning of Cambodia’s descent into full-scale civil war.

The end to Samlot’s war role has already brought change. New bulldozers, tractors and heavy equipment, presumably from nearby Thailand, are seen in the Toek Sok.

The area’s people are mainly farmers and now they have more leeway under government rule to sell their crops on the open market and have more contact with the outside world.

During a reporter’s visit, motorcycles, appliances, blankets, meats and vegetables were unloaded from a helicopter just arrived from Battambang, the second largest city in Cambodia, to be sold in the newly opened market.

In the past, under the Khmer Rouge, all goods were purchased from Thailand at inflated prices. And the only currency available to residents of the remote jungle town was trees.

``We used to trade logs to Thailand for food and clothes,″ said Thun Mot, 40, who claims that most of the trade stopped in November when a decree was brought from Phnom Penh saying no logs could cross the border without authorization from the government.

A graveyard of discarded tree trunks and a primitive saw mill 100 yards from the center of the village is a reminder of the illegal timber trade that for years helped to bankroll the guerrilla movement.

Chi Tonn, 60, said the villagers are now devoting their energies to making safe the very areas they once sowed with deadly weapons.

``We used to make about 5,000 poisoned bamboo spikes a week,″ he said.

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