Self-rule of Khmer Rouge defectors

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 December, 1998, 12:00am

In Pailin near Cambodia's western border with Thailand, life is very much in the raw. There Khmer Rouge defectors align their own civil code with norms accepted by an outside world with which they are in far closer contact.

The executioner has hung up his rifle as summary eradication of people who repeatedly steal becomes a thing of the dark past; debates rage over the best way to 're-educate' prostitutes and grapple with motorcycle registration. Modern Khmer Rouge 'morality' is supposed to be in step with the rest of the country.

Visitors to the zone, a former Khmer Rouge gem-mining stronghold, are struck by one highly intriguing fact. The fighters who once clung to the ideology of a genocidal regime are in charge of their own destiny.

Many now wear Cambodian government uniforms but that seems to be as close as Phnom Penh comes to control and influence.

Pol Pot's brother-in-law and former foreign minister Ieng Sary is the public face of Pailin following the peace deal carved in 1996 when his faction split from the remaining jungle resistance. His health is failing and many observers believe real power is held by more shadowy former Khmer Rouge henchmen such as Governor Ei Chien.

History has shown the area is hard to invade and few see any challenge to his rule.

Gem and casino deals have been signed with Thai investors but any profits remain in Pailin - and amazingly Phnom Penh has yet to demand taxes from the defectors, diplomats believe.

'Everyone turned a blind eye to the problems posed by self-rule by defectors,' one Asian diplomat based in Phnom Penh said. 'So long as their brothers were still holding out in the jungles, no one seemed too concerned at what the defectors were up to, so long as they were peaceful.' The defection at the weekend of the last 1,000 rebels and 30,000 Khmer Rouge families is changing all that. Many are set to end up in the zones such as Pailin and Malai to the north where they will remain effectively outside government control.

'If ever we were to see the start of some sort of Khmer Rouge nouveau now is the time,' another diplomat said.

It is hard to see how Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen or any other leader could risk asserting themselves up there.

Already the commanders of the last batch of defectors are showing little desire to help with the hunt for the last remaining leaders of Pol Pot's genocidal four-year rule - Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.

Khem Nguon, one of the key figures in the defection, spoke with apparent pride over the one-legged Ta Mok, known as 'The Butcher' for his role in the purges that marked Pol Pot's descent into paranoia, and who is now thought to be hiding in Thailand.

Not only did Ta Mok not hold any personal fortune, Khem Nguon insisted on his visit on Monday to Phnom Penh, but he spent what he had on building schools, roads and hospitals for the people.

Once they settle down to civilian life, the defectors are likely to have as much to do with Thailand as their own country, many observers believe.

The border area is peppered with trails and roads. The stores are filled with Thai goods, the restaurants filled with Thai traders and the Thai baht is in far more evidence than the kip. As peace finally erodes bureaucratic suspicions in the months to come, many expect the border to become even more porous.

At the moment, firm local leadership has given Pailin an air of safety and security, observers report. There remains considerable natural wealth and this has been enough to draw peasants from miles around.

Quickly they are made to feel like outsiders, tagged the 'New People' by the veteran Khmer Rouge civilians.