Twenty years since the last Khmer Rouge fighters were integrated back into mainstream Cambodian society, militiamen from formerly rival factions say they are happy with the development their border communities have seen since the end of hostilities.
In Pailin city, a ceremony at Wat Korng Kang presided over by Prime Minister Hun Sen signaled the end of a bitter civil war and the beginning of modern development in the former Khmer Rouge strongholds.
Since 1979, the Khmer Rouge, backed by China, had fought the Vietnam-backed government in Phnom Penh which ousted their leadership from power. Tens of thousands of soldiers and their families, led by the regime’s former foreign minister Ieng Sary and two other commanders – Y Chheang in Pailin province and Sok Pheap in the Malai region – carried on the fight.
So Vun, 54, a resident of Bo Tang Sou village in Pailin city, said the immediate aftermath of the integration was a difficult time.
“After the integration, though some people struggled then, peace allowed people who had served as soldiers for more than 30 years to live a life without fear and war,” he said.
“But since integration, life is still a struggle. We just try and make a livelihood and work. In the past, we had no jobs and escaped with our families from bombs, but now we don’t need to run.”
Vun has one demand that he wants the government to address with urgency: improving the lot for poor farming communities. It’s a refrain heard often among impoverished former Khmer Rouge families, many of whom beat their swords to plowshares after the Pailin agreement.
The price of cassava, a key crop in the area, is too low for Vun to afford to feed his family and pay for his six children to attend school, he says.
Snguon Seng Long, the 24-year-old son of a former cadre, dropped out of school in grade eight to till the fields after his parents died. “We need to buy rice, snacks, vegetables, meat and sometimes the cost of the kids’ [medical] treatment, and each month pay back 60,000 riel [about $14.50] for the interest on our loans, so we have no money to save at all,” he said.
“Our money goes on paying off the interest on our loans, and for the kids’ treatment. Suppose I get sick... I am the breadwinner and I’d be lost.”
Uon Chantha, 47, a resident of the ex-Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng, had served as a message runner for the Khmer Rouge, moving into cassava farming and carpentry after integration.
“For me, I don’t want to see war, I only want peace, like it is now,” he said. “Of course I like the current situation, but it’s not perfect… things, particularly law enforcement, is not implemented well like in other countries, where things go smoothly,” he said.
Chantha sees social injustices and this has caused him to question the new system, but generally he says he is impressed with the achievements of his local authority. As with many other former Khmer Rouge who have turned to farming, he wants the government to set price controls on cassava to ensure an income for the community.
While the former cadres no longer fear war with their fellow countrymen, tensions with neighboring countries come up regularly in conversations about the state of the peace.
“Our country has peace and if there is not any crisis in the future, I don’t believe there will be another war among the Khmer… because Khmer people have been through war. It lasted so long and no-one wants to see it happen again,” said Vun.
“I think that’s impossible, but perhaps less so with neighboring countries. If a border war happens, I will join the army.”
Cambodia’s borders with both Thailand and Vietnam are the subject of ongoing and often tense disputes. Claims that Vietnam has encroached on Cambodian territory have prompted fierce protests and led to a rising anti-Vietnamese sentiment among Khmers. Cambodia’s heavily militarized border with Thailand was the site of armed clashes in 2008 over the Preah Vihear temple.
Chea Say, a 66-year-old farmer in O Ta Vao village in Pailin, said that although he is poor, “I am also happy with whatever happens, except war. When there is war there’s destruction and no development for the nation and people,” adding that if the disputes with Cambodia’s neighbors came to war he would take up arms.
Chea Leab, deputy governor of Pailin province, said numerous government programs since the civil war ended have helped people in the region.
“People are not struggling. Since integration, they are happy because they no longer hear the sound of bombs. They no longer worry about where and when they need to escape. They just concentrate on farming,” she said, adding that the recent drought had hurt the price of cash crops such as cassava, which many local farmers rely on.
Ou Sokhon, another resident of Anlong Veng, said the reliance on cash crop farming left rural families in a precarious situation, whereas before the peace agreements subsistence farming was the norm.
“Compared to then, we are happy with our farming because we have a market... but we want to sell our products at a slightly higher price in the market. It is our request.”
Hor Chhinvirakyuth, governor of Anlong Veng district, said “the sentiment of local people is to work together” and praised the lack of discrimination between former Khmer Rouge and people from the cities.
However, Youk Chhang of the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) says more needs to be done to create a lasting peace.
“A national policy [of reconciliation], we need to exercise this constantly … because the generation of survivors from the Khmer Rouge regime is not gone yet,” he said.
Part of the peacekeeping process involves education, he adds, which DC-Cam plays a vital role in through building centers that serve as educational facilities on the history of the war, text books for schools and training teachers, as well as building pagodas, and other ways to help the process of healing and reconciliation.
Pheap, the former commander of the Malai region, said “peace must be strengthened since it’s hard to earn.”
“If we read history, our country has never had peace until now, because of the ‘Win-Win Policy’,” he said, referring to Hun Sen’s reconciliation program.
“The peace from the win-win policy is almost 20 years old. The main issue now is the income of soldiers and the livelihoods of their families in the Malai region.I see a lot of development, like roads, electricity, water, markets, farming products and small businesses, and their livelihoods and housing is growing rapidly. It’s not like before,” he added.
However, Kek Galabru, the founder of the local human rights group Licadho, said that real and lasting peace remained elusive.
“If we want to have social stability, we have to build the trust in national institutions, particularly the judicial system and electoral institutions, because in democratic countries people have freedom of expression and elect the leaders they want,” she said.