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From War Zone to Business Zone in O’Smach

During the war years, the area of O’Smach saw some of Cambodia’s fiercest fighting. The region, in the mountains of today’s Oddar Meanchey province, was littered with mines and surrounded with guns. Here government forces battled with the royalist guerrillas. War lasted here from 1970 to 1998.

“O’Smach was formerly the hottest war zone, the one with the most fighting,” observed Nget Paranin, chief of the communes now-international checkpoint, on a recent afternoon. “But now it has become a region of markets, casinos, an international checkpoint and infrastructure.”

Indeed, 12 years after peace settled here, the guns are silent, there are no explosions, and fighters have been replaced by retailers and shoppers from the Cambodian and Thai sides of the border.

Around 400 people are running businesses at O’Smach’s main market, selling clothes, bags, shoes, jewelry and cake.

The border, which was upgraded to international status in 2002, allows merchants to travel to the other side as well. At a market 4 kilometers inside Thailand, around 300 Cambodians are employed as vendors.

However, the area has a long way to go.

Even with the increase in businesses, officials here say National Road 68 is in ill repair, which hampers further expansion. The 100-kilometer road, which runs all the way to Kralanh town, on the border of Siem Reap and Banteay Meanchey provinces, was destroyed during the war. Only now has the government begun repairs.

“People’s lives remain the same, and nothing has changed from previous years, thanks to the bad road, which can only transport some kinds of light products, only used by people along the border,” said Chhae Sothea, acting chief of customs for Oddar Meanchey.

Trade along the border only reached about $180,000, mostly in construction materials, second-hand vehicles and sugarcane seed. Only about 30 Cambodian and Thai tourists visit the border per week.

O’Smach Commune Chief Phem Samart said around 60 percent of the nearly 2,000 families in his commune live under the poverty line, having failed to gain any benefits from border trade. Most still work in agriculture, often migrating seasonally to Thailand.

“Our business is not going to get any better,” said Som Sovann, a 31-year-old shoe vendor. “It is too quiet. So I’ve just added more agricultural job, like growing mangoes and bananas and raising fish.”

Still, Nget Paranin, the border official, remains optimistic. With the rehabilitation of Road 68, he said, O’Smach will become a cross-border business hub, with an increase in traffic and tourists. That would mean an improvement to the lives of many in this former fighting zone.