- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2003

PAILIN, Cambodia — Surrounded by hills and tropical jungles, Pailin was a stronghold for Maoist revolutionaries on the run 24 years ago.

Today, it is a cauldron of capitalism, whose eager brokers are former guerrillas of the Khmer Rouge movement that once decreed commerce a capital crime.

The Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975 with a dream of turning Cambodia into an agrarian commune. By the time the movement was ousted in 1979 by an invading Vietnamese army, more than 1.7 million Cambodians had been executed or worked to death by leader Pol Pot and his henchmen.

Thousands more perished during the ensuing 20 years of civil war after the Khmer Rouge’s retreat from the capital, Phnom Penh, to set up base in Pailin in far western Cambodia.

The Khmer Rouge began to crumble in 1996 when a large portion of its guerrillas, led by “Brother No. 3” Ieng Sary, brother-in-law to Pol Pot, went over to the Cambodian government. The movement dissolved in 1999 with the capture of military commander Ta Mok, also know as “the Butcher.” Pol Pot had died the previous year.

Many of the 1996 defectors now live in Pailin, where they work as gem traders. Others have turned the surrounding jungle into prosperous farms.

On Saturdays, many of the former soldiers gather to watch Thai kickboxing or cockfights, or to gamble in glittering casinos staffed by young Cambodian women wearing red bow ties.

Not all of them are thriving.

Noun Chea, Pol Pot’s right-hand man once known as “Brother No. 2,” lives quietly on the outskirts of Pailin in a shack. Nearby, the neon signs of the casinos mix with lightning flashes from approaching thunderstorms to light up the night.

At 78, Noun Chea is ailing and refuses to speak of the past. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he says, staring blankly out the front door.

Along the nearby border with Thailand, Khmer Rouge soldier Sok Chom stepped on a land mine in 1980. He was 24 then, a skilled fighter with Chinese-made B-40 rocket-propelled grenade launchers used to destroy armored cars and tanks.

Sok Chom’s smile fades as he adjusts the straps securing his homemade prosthetic leg. A wooden stump is now his left leg, a constant, painful reminder of his years with the Khmer Rouge.

“I would like for the world to come and help all the land-mine victims of Cambodia like me,” Sok Chom pleads as a skinny, yellow cat rubs against him.

“My life here in Pailin is so difficult,” he says, his eyes brimming with tears.

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