Khmer Rouge stronghold faces new evils

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 July, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 July, 1998, 12:00am

Just a year ago the gem-rich stronghold of Pailin in western Cambodia looked set to preserve all that was pure about 'Khmer Rouge morality'.

As new defectors blinked wide-eyed at new freedoms and contacts with the outside world, they insisted they would keep their fiefdom free from the evils of capitalism: gambling and prostitution.

They said not everything was bad about the Khmer Rouge, which average Cambodians see as the embodiment of evil. Integration with the rest of Cambodia did not mean they would import its worst aspects.

However, one year on, the harsh winds of commercial reality have struck the town that remains the stronghold of the rebels' most famous defector, Ieng Sary.

On a quiet Sunday, prostitutes stroll down the main street looking for business at noon. Workers toil overtime to complete the Caesar International Casino, a joint venture between top defectors and old Thai friends.

Where once there were shuttered, bomb-damaged shops there are fairy lights and restaurants.

An estimated 10,000 'new people' have flocked to the area since Mr Ieng Sary and 5,000 troops broke away from late rebel leader Pol Pot to 'join' the Government in late 1996.

Pailin was then said to be far safer than most of Cambodia. The poor were not stigmatised and the area held the promise of vast riches.

The 'new people' are now a sorry sight in rough-hewn encampments and shelters on the edge of the bomb-damaged town. As giant excavators churn through the soil for Thai investors, peasants pan desperately in mines that have already been turned over at least twice.

There are fears disease, vice and violence will spread as pressure mounts.

'Before integration the people had a better living,' says Huot Try Siy, a 30-year veteran of the Khmer Rouge frontline and now an activist for opposition leader Sam Rainsy in the July 26 election.

'People are starving.'