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Khmer Rouge Dissidents: ‘From Now On, the People Will Be Happy’

August 19, 1996

PHNOM PRUK, Cambodia (AP) _ Like mushrooms after a rain, the stalls selling snacks and sweets sprouted overnight once people were sure Commander Nikorn was gone.

Life had been hard for the past year or so, after Nikorn implemented a directive from the Khmer Rouge leadership banning all trade in its quest for an agrarian utopia. Nikorn had his men confiscate tables and carts, cars and motorcycles _ anything that could be used to carry on business.

The ban was especially frustrating for these villagers, because with prosperous Thailand practically on their doorstep, they were among the few Cambodians with a market ready to pay cash for their products.

Now, though, Nikorn was gone. And the dissident Khmer Rouge fighters who had replaced him were promising to make things better.

Nikorn and two other senior hard-line leaders of the Khmer Rouge slipped away in the dead of night Wednesday after a dissident guerrilla threw a hand grenade at the house where they were staying.

News of their departure spread quickly. Guerrillas from nearby Phnom Malai, loyal to dissident Khmer Rouge commander Sok Pheap, rushed to the area.

``When I went into Phnom Pruk, the people were very happy. They came straight to me and thanked the forces from Phnom Malai for helping,″ said Sada Net, 37, a soldier of Sok Pheap’s faction.

``I told them, `Don’t worry. We are not here to harm you. ... You can now return to your daily lives, your routine.‴

Sok Pheap professes loyalty to Ieng Sary, the former right-hand man and brother-in-law of Pol Pot who announced Friday that he was breaking with the guerrilla movement to form a political party.

Under Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge caused the deaths of as many as 2 million Cambodians after winning a civil war in 1975.

As Sok Pheap’s men moved into Phnom Pruk, villagers made a beeline for Nikorn’s house. Firing their rifles in celebration, they went to take back what was theirs _ and then some.

``There were hundreds of chairs, wooden tables so long that 10 men couldn’t lift them,″ said Nee, Sok Pheap’s top lieutenant. ``From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., the people still weren’t able to take it all.″

By the next day, though, even the wooden walls had been stripped from Nikorn’s house.

On Friday, Sok Pheap sent 200 men and two tanks to Phnom Pruk.

``We will put a tank at Phnom Pruk to protect the people of the area from the possibility of any loyalists attacking,″ said Sareth Ros, 42, one of Sok Pheap’s lieutenants. ``From now on, the people will be happy. We will support them to make their own living.″

The march from Phnom Malai resembled a victory parade. Smiling guerrillas banged away on gas cans atop pickup trucks. Periodically, they would stop to pick up a comrade.

Villagers came out to welcome them. And in front of their roadside homes, on tables newly liberated from Nikorn’s house, they displayed sweets and other food for sale.

It marked a small but significant resurgence of free enterprise.

Khmer Rouge guerrillas are farmers, and bread-winners for their families. They had hoped their lot would improve after a 1991 peace agreement was signed by Cambodia’s long-warring political factions.

For a brief period, their leaders allowed a modicum of liberalization. But as their movement began to disintegrate, harsh discipline was reimposed. The practice of Buddhism was banned. Any form of commerce was forbidden.

To be denied the opportunity to eke out a better living, while millions of their countrymen in government-controlled territory and in nearby Thailand were free to do as they wished, became an unacceptable burden.

``I’ve been fighting since I was 14,″ said Khon Eng, 38. ``We want the war to end because we feel sorry for our children. We want them to have a future and an education like Thai children.″

Although the dissident guerrillas espouse a live-and-let-live attitude towards the hard-liners, some villagers are not so generous.

``If we were able to catch Son Sen, Nikorn and Ta Mok (the three senior leaders who fled), we have to bring them to trial to let the people decide. But if you ask me, I would decide on killing them,″ said villager Porn Suan, 28.

``Son Sen is ruthless. The people don’t want him alive. He oppressed them. Whoever had a car, a cart, had them taken away. When they returned from fighting, they could not make a living.″

Sok Pheap, meanwhile, has emerged as a local hero for standing up to the hard-line leadership.

As the highest-ranking dissident commander accessible to journalists who cross the border from Thailand, he also has become the main spokesman for the breakaway movement.

At a Friday news conference, he claimed that with Nikorn out, the rebels control the border from Phnom Malai to Pailin, a Khmer Rouge stronghold 45 miles to the south. Sok Pheap and other Khmer Rouge dissidents claim to command thousands of men.

Using persuasion rather than force, he said, his forces plan to drive north and south to bring more guerrillas into the fold, and end fighting against the government.

``I don’t listen to Pol Pot anymore,″ Sok Pheap said. ``We’ve gone our separate ways.″

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