Vietnamese soldiers had been slowly trickling back home for years but it wasn’t until the 9th of September in 1989 that the final three divisions left Battambang. To mark this auspicious occasion a leaving ceremony was performed around Battambang’s famous Dambang Statue (at that time looking very worse for wear) and the local schools were duly emptied to provide an appropriately large and impressive audience.
Peoples’ reactions to these events were mixed. Some were clearly elated, sensed their freedom and were simply happy that the occupation was over. Others, however, knowing that the Khmer Rouge were still strong, well armed and not so far away, were concerned that locally recruited ill-trained, conscript soldiers were simply too inexperienced to defend us from attack.
Most worried of all were local businessmen who had made money from relaxations on trade that the Vietnamese had allowed. Would Heng Samrin’s communist government keep the status quo or would he ratchet up restrictions on free enterprise? Nobody knew but some had a lot to lose.
Initially life became more relaxed. The sunset curfew was abolished and people were free to enjoy our traditional Khmer habit of dar lang (strolling and socialising by the river in the evening) again. From 1990, nightclubs began to open, the free market continued to flourish and some people (mainly government officials) became very rich by acquiring prime real estate.
However, by 1991 the security situation had changed markedly for the worse and three different armed factions were out there fighting Heng Samrin’s army. The Khmer Rouge, stronger than ever, had already taken Pailin, with it the lucrative gemstone trade, and had then advanced to take Snung, a mere 35km from Battambang. Elsewhere, Son Sann’s KPNLF (one of two much smaller anti communist factions along with the royalist ANS) had taken S’vay Jahek (hometown of the leading royalist general Neak Bun Chhay) near Sisophon in Bantey Meachey Province.
We had little faith in the ability of government troops to defend us from these advances. This was with good reason as most conscripts were little more than frightened teenagers taken against their will from villages, given a gun and a week’s training, then sent off to fight much more experienced and better trained Khmer Rouge forces.
These days many preople are unaware that the government forces were propped up by Vietnamese veterans wearing Khmer uniforms and paid $30 a month by the government to act as mercenaries and keep the conscripts in line. This didn’t always work. On one occasion a young locally recruited conscript was instructed to lead the way through a minefield and then into the line of fire of waiting Khmer Rouge. Rather than obeying orders and accepting this suicide mission, he spun around and emptied the full clip of his AK47 into the six Vietnamese mercenaries following behind. Then, throwing down his rifle he ran all the way back to Battambang where he was hidden and sheltered by friends and family.
Despite a long search, he was never found but was later able to emerge and still lives in Battambang today. By 1992 the KR had been pushed out of Snung and Son Sann’s faction together with the ANS (which had evolved into FUNCIPEC) had agreed to join the UNTAC peace process. Nevertheless, things got a lot worse before they began to get better.