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 CAMBODIA : Pailin 


City of Terror


Text and photography by Eric Pasquier


In north-east Cambodia, 20 kms from the Thai border, lies a city whose name struck terror into the heart of Cambodians: Pailin. Its precious gems mines – some of the richest in Asia – financed the Khmer Rouge regime and served as Pol Pot’s torture chambers.

The city has recently opened again, its museum filled with harrowing drawings made by former prisoners. ERIC PASQUIER went to Pailin to unearth its dark history and discover how its people live now.

Since the death of Pol Pot in April 1998, the eyes of the world have been trained on Cambodia. An unlikely star in the spotlight of media attention is the city of Pailin. For decades, the city – famous for the richness of its precious gems mines; infamous for its Khmer Rouge torture chambers – was cut off from the outside world. Recently Pailin became an ‘open city’ once more and foreigners have finally been able to see the remains of a regime of terror.

The occasion for this uncharacteristic open-doors-policy was political in nature: the Khmer Rouge which had ruled Cambodia with an iron fist between 1975 and 1979, suffered a setback from which it would never recover. Its legendary and hated leader, Pol Pot, was finally dead, leaving his former allies scrambling for cover.


As fate would have it, the stomping ground of one of Pol Pot’s former henchmen, Ieng Sary, is Pailin – which happens to be one of the richest sources of precious gems in South-east Asia. And Ieng Sary happens to be on Cambodia’s Most Wanted list dating back to 1979, when he was sentenced to death in absentia. When he defected over to the Phnom Penh government in 1996, it marked the beginning of the end for the Khmer Rouge and came in the nick of time for Sary himself. Just two years later Pol Pot was dead, his former allies facing charges of genocide. Put simply, the man who runs Pailin wants to save his skin – hence the open doors, press conferences and wide smiles for the cameras.


Killing Fields

From 1975 to 1979, Pol Pot had been instrumental in the deaths of 3,3 million Cambodians in the killing fields. But when, in January 1979, Vietnamese forces took Phnom Penh, Pol Pot was forced to flee by helicopter. Vietnam went on to re-name Cambodia as the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, and put their puppet Heng Samrin in Phnom Penh.



In early 1979, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians returned to their homeland in the hope of finding relatives alive after the Khmer Rouge period. The gruesome legacy of the notorious killing fields was quickly discovered.

But by November 1979 many more Cambodians were fleeing back out of the country again, across the border into Thailand, away from the battles between retreating Khmer forces and advancing Vietnamese. Away from famine.

Refugee camps sprang up along the border like mushrooms out of the ground.​

There was confusion over where international aid was to go: the UN refused to recognise the Phnom Penh government since it had been established by the Vietnamese, but pouring aid directly into the refugee camps along the Thai border seemed to be playing into the hands of the Khmer Rouge who controlled some of the camps along the border.

The humanitarian situation in Cambodia was perhaps better than it had been under the 75-79 Khmer regime, but the Heng Samrin government were still regularly accused of human rights violations.


Along the Thai border, the Khmer Rouge regrouped and transformed into a guerrilla army. Two other groups formed at the same time: the first under Prince Sihanouk; the second under Son Sann, a former Prime Minister. The Khmer Rouge were the strongest. The West couldn’t support the Vietnamese puppet government in Phnom Penh, but wouldn’t support the Khmer Rouge outright either. Under US pressure, the three guerrilla groups finally banded together in 1982 under the leadership of Sihanouk. 


Vietnamese capitulation

Meanwhile, the worsening economic situation caused by the fighting, economic embargoes against the Vietnamese and diminishing Soviet support all meant that the Vietnamese finally agreed in 1988 to withdraw from Cambodia, with all forces to be gone by 1990. This cleared the way for peace. 1990 the UN Security Council called for a Supreme National Council (SNC) with two representatives for each of the three guerrilla movements. 

On October 23, 1991 a peace agreement was signed, with the demobilisation of 70% of all troops and the UN running an interim government until elections in May 1993. It was to be one of biggest UN peace-keeping operations ever. In October 1991 Heng Samrin was replaced by Hun Sen as the electoral candidate for the Phnom Penh faction. The Khmer Rouge were still holding out along the border and doing everything possible to make the repatriation of refugees, overseen by the UN, as difficult for the peace-keepers as possible.


May 23, 1993 finally dawned: the elections. Despite Khmer Rouge threats to disturb the process, 4.2 out of the 4.7 million Cambodian registered voters went to the polls.  The end result was that FUNCINPEC (led by Norodom Ranariddh, the son of Sihanouk) won 58 out of 120 seats; the Phnom Penh faction (led by Hun Sen) won 51 seats; and the Son Sann faction won 10 seats. The Khmer Rouge boycotted the elections.


The end of an era

But in 1996, even the Khmer Rouge had had enough. In August, mass-defections meant that huge areas previously under Khmer Rouge control were now in the hands of the Royal Cambodian Army.


One of these areas was Pailin, controlled by Pol Pot’s right-hand man Ieng Sary – a man whose reputation back in 1979 was bad enough to have him sentenced to death in absentia along with Pol Pot himself. A smooth operator, Ieng Sary was actually one of the first Khmer Rouge-istes to see that it was all over; the fat lady had sung. His defection in 1996 was a last-minute bid to save his skin.


And not a moment too soon. Pol Pot met his fate – in the form of a fatal heart attack – on April 15th, 1998, marking the end of an era. Today the calls for an international tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge leaders for genocide are becoming louder and louder. Ieng Sary, of course, can point to his defection of 1996 and call it “contributing to national rebuilding and reconciliation”, protesting his innocence all the way.


Pailin is still a ravaged, pathetic-looking town. Ieng Sary comes from Pailin and has opened the doors of the city to international scrutiny. He says the past is the past; best forget about the ‘Seventies, nasty business. The doors are of course open only to the foreigners who have been invited to Pailin by Ieng Sary; and they only open so far: the itinerary for any outsider is carefully planned in advance by the authorities. The image one is shown is that of a city that has moved seamlessly from total dictatorial isolation to modern democracy without any problems.


But visitors can see the state of abject desolation in which the city still founders, despite new freedom. The number of handicapped children and adults is astonishing. The city is appallingly poor and depressing; its have known only war, bloodshed and hardship. Pol Pot forbade all leisure activities here: there are no bars, no women. A single green pagoda marks what is the pathetic ‘downtown’ Pailin. The surrounding countryside is littered with deadly mines.


And yet, until 1974, Pailin was an enjoyable, agreeable city. It suffered greatly from the pillaging carried out by government troops. Every building is pock-marked with the scars of warfare. Many are in total ruins. It is a shadow of its former self.


While we are in Pailin, we are placed under house arrest for 12 hours for having taken “troubling” pictures. We then hear the story of a German reporter who, a couple of years before, was burned alive for illegally entering Pailin via the Thai border, his ashes sent to the German embassy in Phnom Penh. The Khmers had mistaken him for a CIA agent. Pailin may now have re-joined the government fold, but it’s still wary of uninvited guests. Which makes its new image as a get-rich-quick location all the more bizarre. 


Back in 1960, Pailin was found to be sitting on a precious-gems mine, its wealth to rival that of Mogok in Myanmar. Most of the stones were mined by Shan minorities from the mountainous regions of Myanmar.  Rubies, sapphires, zircon and onyx are still extracted from the rich surface soil. The entire region has been combed over to an average depth of two metres, in such a way as to create maximum productivity. Entire families work from dawn to dusk, often pulling up precious stones that actually have no commercial value because they are too small or the ‘wrong’ colour. When they do find something of value, they must pay the owner of the property a 25% commission, and a 50% commission to the dealer.


During the late ‘Seventies, when the Khmer Rouge had the upper hand in Cambodia, the mines’ wealth financed the death machine of Pol Pot. Then, and later, the stones were sold in Thailand in exchange for arms or raw materials.


But Pailin’s history has also been darker. In the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, you can see photographs of the torture chambers used by the Khmer Rouge. Portraits of dead prisoners with their identification numbers are on show in the museum; skeletons lie in a cell; paintings illustrate the different kinds of tortures awaiting prisoners. Pailin, one of the main Khmer Rouge strongholds, was the scene to many such tortures and deaths.


Pailin’s wealth, meanwhile, makes it highly sought after – which explains why Ieng Sary is using it as a political bargaining chip. He is said to have literally sold off Pailin and other cities. The city’s wealth also explains why Hun Sen has stated that de-mining would be a priority in the region; he wants the roads to the wealthy gems of Pailin open. The image of two former enemies shaking hands, letting bygones be bygones, for the sake of wealth and power is not new – nor one likely to appease the millions who still remember the Killing Fields.


But Pailin’s reputation as a city of terror is finally fading; its name as a get-rich-quick location is spreading far and wide. Anybody can now dig for Pailin’s rubies and sapphires after paying a minimal fee of 500 Bahts for every 3 metres² to the landowner – and people are lining up from all over Cambodia to take advantage of the scheme. There are currently about 500 people digging in and around Pailin.

There are pits everywhere; Pailin is now a lunar landscape. Beside the pits are piled up hemp bags of excavated soil called ‘reir’. After around 2 weeks of collecting reir, the soil is then panned in a nearby river.


Lee, one such hopeful, says: “I love this work; it makes me think I may be a millionaire any moment. You can’t imagine the thrill of finding a ruby – of any size – in the pan.”


So after having been through so much upheaval, bloodshed, ideological cleansing, Communism and revolution, Pailin has finally joined the rank and file of Capitalism.


Pailin symbolises Cambodia as a whole: determined to outstrip the long shadow of its dark history. Although the tribunals – if they go ahead – are likely to cause some aftershocks yet, Ieng Saru will probably slip through the net by virtue of his home-town’s wealth. Money, that great lubricant of political compromise, talks loudly here in Pailin, City of Terror.



Copyright © Eric Pasquier

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