In the Zone

An old Khmer Rouge stronghold, now a peaceful autonomous zone and

From Kassie Neou's perspective, he doesn't have much choice.

Even though he lost his family during the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, he says he wants to retrain former Khmer Rouge fighters, turning them into model civil servants in Cambodia.

"This is our only opportunity for peace. We either grab it or lose it," he explains.

A survivor of a Khmer Rouge detention center, Kassie Neou founded the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights in 1993 to help foster a culture of peace in this small Southeast Asian nation, which has been ripped apart since the 1960s by two wars as well as the Khmer Rouge.

His work took him directly into the largest concentration of former Khmer Rouge followers: the city of Pailin along the border with Thailand.

Until 1996, the city had remained one of the few areas in Cambodia still under control of the Khmer Rouge - 16 years after they lost control of all Cambodia to a Vietnam-led group of Khmer Rouge defectors.

Three years ago, the first high-ranking Khmer Rouge leader and a close aide to the late Pol Pot defected to the Cambodian government. Ieng Sary struck a peace deal that won autonomy for Pailin and a surrounding "zone" about 20 miles wide.

Now run by former Khmer Rouge leaders under the loose control of the central government in Phnom Penh, Pailin today carries remnants of Cambodia's tortured past.

Former Khmer Rouge soldiers walk side by side with "outsiders" - the gem traders and Buddhist monks who have come from outlying provinces to repopulate the city. Armored tanks lie abandoned in open fields.

People like Kassie Neou are the government's passive ammunition, part of its unofficial strategy to neutralize the Khmer Rouge and prevent them from gaining power ever again.

"The only way to ensure there won't be a pocket of insurgency again is if we send people in there. If we mix local people with people from other provinces," says government spokesman Khieu Kanharith. "That's [the Khmer Rouge's] weak point - their isolation."

So, 20 years after the fall of a regime responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians, is the Khmer Rouge really at peace? Or, as many in Cambodia's government fear, simply a sleeping tiger waiting for the right time to wake up?

"The Khmer Rouge movement is dead, we cannot be reincarnated," says Ieng Vuth, Pailin's first deputy governor and son of Ieng Sary. But, in an interview with the Pailin powerbroker, one message is clear: Do not anger us.

The Khmer Rouge "could cause a small rebellion, not as big as before, but that would be enough," says Ieng Vuth. The country would be destroyed. "If the Cambodian people break away from each other this time, nothing would remain."

Pailin is booming now, a Dodge City in a nation full of frontiers. Khmer Rouge cadres turned government soldiers stroll through local markets, AK-47s slung over their shoulders. Villagers have cleared land to build homes or farms. Young children are everywhere. Capitalism grips the town: Even motorcycle-taxi drivers sell precious stones culled from the countryside.

Former Khmer Rouge leaders also have various business ventures linking them to the outside world. Environmental watchdogs say millions are being made from the stripping of prime timber. And government officials complain Pailin boosts its coffers with illegal exports, undercutting fledgling efforts to collect taxes. "The government told us we can raise money for ourselves however we want, so we do it," says Ieng Vuth, whose father was a leading member of a regime that abolished currency. "Everyone loves money," Ieng Vuth says.

Political intrigue and jealousy over the profits from Pailin's natural resources are what fractured the Khmer Rouge movement three years ago. Its first year as an autonomous zone was a rocky one. And during a coup in Phnom Penh in July 1997, there were fears Pailin would join the forces of ousted First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh, whose Funcinpec Party fought alongside the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s. But Pailin held firm.

And "step by step," as Khmer Buddhists say, Pailin has opened itself more and more to the government's wishes. Last year, a team was allowed in to conduct the country's first national census in decades. Government surveyors were seen recently mapping the countryside.

Adapting to new ways

Peace has brought personal freedom, which in turn has brought back traditional Cambodian ways that Pol Pot and his regime sought to eradicate in his rush to outdo Maoist China in creating a utopian communist state.

Along with Pailin's wealth, Buddhism has slowly taken root again. Four temples have opened in the city.

Cut off from Buddhist habits for years, some locals still go into temple compounds with their hats on - an absolute no-no in Khmer Buddhism.

"It's like a lesson they've already taken. They just need a review," says Som Sovann, an abbot who came to Pailin in 1996. "They are concentrating on putting down the gun and picking up the dharma," Som Sovann says, in reference to Buddhism's moral code. "They are trying to restore their hearts as people of a noble culture."

Yet the darker side of freedom is here too. A casino, much loathed by the locals, is thriving. Prostitutes, common in other Cambodian cities, have appeared for the first time. Guards at roadside checkpoints, a mix of former Khmer Rouge and outsider soldiers, illegally demand payment for passage. "That would have never happened before," says Touch Vey, a soldier who ferries travelers through the zone in his free time. "The outsiders have brought corruption."

Newcomers try to stay out of the fray. "I've come here for business. I focus on that and they don't bother me," says Kim Eng, a former Phnom Penh resident who sells stereos, car batteries, and other equipment in Malai, a town also controlled by former Khmer Rouge, 40 miles from Pailin.

"Just don't disagree with what they say," Kim Eng says. "They are still jungle law operators. They're communists. They haven't changed their beliefs."

As much as Cambodia is watering down the Khmer Rouge, there are concerns that its adherents have infiltrated Cambodia and plan a political return.

While there is no official political party here in Pailin, most former Khmer Rouge are bound together by the Democratic National Unity Movement, which they say is meant to help unify the country. Politicians and diplomats see it as the first step toward an active political organization.

The former Khmer Rouge have maintained some strength militarily. As part of their peace deals, seven defectors were made one-star generals in the government's Army. Two of them control military units in Anlong Veng, another Khmer Rouge enclave. Military officials had wanted to dilute a potential rebel threat by dispersing Khmer Rouge soldiers throughout the country. But after their leaders protested, the government left the units intact.

Pailin residents say the Khmer Rouge's weapons are hidden throughout the countryside, just in case the day comes to return to the gun.

"I think they are lying low, building their organization very secretly," says Prince Sisowath Sirirath, Cambodia's co-minister of defense. "Now, the Khmer Rouge have their own weapons. They have their own zone in which they control everything. They flood the country with illegal imports and make money from gems, logs, cars, and gasoline.... They are dangerous."

One Southeast Asia diplomat says that despite the acrimonious splits over the last three years, the Khmer Rouge are still unified. "They each have their own way, but they are still one family," the diplomat says. "If they were to see a threat, they would unite again."

Says one leading member of Cambodia's judiciary: "What would you do if you lost the war but were given land and money? You would fight on. That's exactly what they're doing."

First, a healthy economy

Ieng Vuth acknowledges that there is a "political struggle" left to be waged.

"We need social security, not rebellion," says Ieng Vuth. "The poor will sacrifice their lives for anything, because they know if they die they have not left anything. Remember, the Khmer Rouge took power because of the poor."

Ieng Vuth wants Cambodia's focus to be on the economy, not on a proposed tribunal he says is the work of foreigners. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has backed a recommendation to try the Khmer Rouge leaders.

After 10 years, when the economy is on its feet and people are comfortable, and thus much less willing to return to war, then put the Khmer Rouge leaders on trial, says Ieng Vuth. "If they insist the Khmer Rouge leaders go to trial, the Khmer Rouge soldiers will lose faith in the government and it will result in a rebellion. Reunification is not finished, it is at a first step."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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