Cash woes may spell end for butchers

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 June, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 June, 1998, 12:00am

Entering Khmer Rouge territory is like walking into the heart of a most peculiar dream.

Stunted adults in torn green uniforms emerge from behind piles of rotting logs to stare and sneer. Many are crippled and missing a leg, an arm or an eye. Children in red scarves scamper through the mud that bogs down rusting tanks, buses and diggers, oblivious to the young soldiers toting guns nearby.

You cannot help but wonder at what a strange, marginalised existence the average foot-soldier in the world's last Maoist rebellion must have led in the Thai border jungles that steam just beyond the clearing.

As Khmer Rouge families defect to the Cambodian Government or flee to Thai border camps as fighting continues, new light is slowly emerging on the way they have been forced to live in recent times.

Few outside the leadership had any idea what Pol Pot looked like or who exactly was in charge, but all respected the 'organisation'. Justice for those not willing to fight, persistent thieves or prostitutes could be swift and brutal. Executions were not uncommon. Others were kept exposed to the sun in cramped cages.

'We knew we were different, but we had our own form of civilisation,' said defector Hom. 'There was order and you could live safely as a family. Not everything was bad about Khmer Rouge morality.' More is also being learned about the present leadership under such shadowy figures as Ta Mok, the one-legged veteran known as 'the Butcher', Noun Chea and Khieu Samphan, for years the group's public face.

Internal documents recently published by the Phnom Penh Post suggest a cold, paranoid leadership. They portray radicals with little grasp of reality under increasing pressure - men still eyeing another crack at ultimate rule. The Cambodian Government of Hun Sen, the Vietnamese and even the Khmer Rouge's resistance allies are all targets for hatred.

They also reveal a thick vein of skewed ideology that still governs the leadership's internal debates and a rougher-hewn pragmatism. 'Do not let the people, the poor peasants, become isolated,' Ta Mok told an internal meeting last December. 'Do not rape the people's daughters, otherwise the people will slash us.' As cracks appear, exposing the organisation to scrutiny, it is unfortunate the spotlight has yet to fall on others who surround the saga.

Vested interests, shadowy pasts and politics combine to dent the authority of public pronouncements of the Cambodian Government and military, the Thai armed forces and US State Department.

Grand demands for an international tribunal from Washington, Bangkok and Phnom Penh look right now like sheer fantasy.

Just five weeks ago, the Cambodian Government was claiming the leadership had been all but destroyed. Since then the rains have started and Ta Mok and company remain as elusive as ever, somewhere behind a heavily mined pocket of the Thai border.

Amid the politics, the grandstanding and ideology surrounding the last days of the movement, it could be simple economics that destroys it. Many defectors have said a simple ban on the private trading of chickens, cattle and vegetables was enough to drive them away. 'We weren't even allowed to pick the wild mangoes,' said one.

The reason for such austerity may be found in the once-robust coffers of the leadership - fuelled for years by lucrative gem and logging deals and a string of small businesses inside Thailand. Rebellion is expensive and now, according to the Phnom Penh Post documents, recent meetings revealed they could have less than three million baht (HK$555,000) left.