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Anlong Veng

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Just over 125 kilometres north of Siem Reap, straight up the N67, Anlong Veng is many things: a frontier town, a crossroads, a border, the last refuge of the Khmer Rouge and the final hideout and ultimate resting place of its notorious leader, Pol Pot. It’s also pretty quiet.

There is really not a great deal going on in the centre of town, which consists mainly of the roads that seem built to take you somewhere else. But there is an incredibly b>eerie lake, from which the naked remains of dozens of trees poke like fractured bones. It sits aside the road heading north to Choam on the border with Thailand, and makes for interesting photo opportunities. If you fancy a flutter, there’s a casino on top of the cliffs in nearby Choam. You’ll also find the site of Pol Pot’s cremation, and not far from there the guesthouse that used to belong to Ta Mok, Brother Number 5, a man also known as “The Butcher” thanks to the enthusiasm he brought to the paranoid purges carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Along the promontory here, you will find some of the most spectacular views in Cambodia.

While Anlong Veng is probably the best known town in Oddar Meanchey to the outside world, it’s not the provincial capital — that would be Samroang, which offers even fewer reasons to visit than here.

Oddar Meanchey is a strange province largely occupied by former Khmer Rouge cadres — many still nostalgic for the “good old days” — and families from across Cambodia who had become dispossessed and were awarded land here. It sometimes feels more disconnected and less open than other parts of Cambodia.

The province is actually quite young, and was only formally carved out of a much larger Siem Reap in 1999, a move deemed necessary in order to make the newly defined provinces more manageable. At that time, the Phnom Penh Post defined Oddar Meanchey by reference to a prevalence of disease, dislocation and destruction of its resources. There were also the land mines to consider. This corner of Cambodia was once one of the most heavily mined areas in the world, and it is still not a place you ever should step off the main path.

But some background. Following their defeat in 1979, the Khmer Rouge retreated to the borders of Thailand, pushed back by the Vietnamese who were to remain in the country until 1989. In the 1990s, the newly elected Cambodian government continued to fight and to reach out to the Khmer Rouge all at the same time. The politics of the time added a perverse twist to the drama.

In 1993, UN-backed elections led to the creation of a government led by two political parties wedded by an uncomfortable power-sharing arrangement fostered by a “cowardly” United Nations that had given in to Hun Sen’s demands for a place at the governing table, despite having lost the election to Prince Ranariddh’s royalist FUNCINPEC party. Apparently Hun Sen was so enraged by the loss that he threw a television across a room.

While the power-sharing arrangement theoretically placed Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the junior position, by 1997 this was beginning to wear thin on the ambitious young minister. He had already succeeded in undermining the effectiveness of Ranariddh’s officials, and in showing that the UN could easily be pushed into violating its professed core principles of democracy and justice at the slightest pressure; anything to avoid conflict. With a man like Hun Sen, having got so far, with power so close yet not entirely in hand, a coup was a virtual inevitability.

It should be noted that nine out of ten eligible Cambodians had risked their lives to vote in the 1993 elections, and they had clearly voted for Prince Ranariddh. The power-sharing arrangement was a slap in the face to them and the principles of democracy they had risked so much for, and the ouster of Ranariddh by Hun Sen four years later, a travesty. When it finally happened, the rest of the world made a few futile gestures but ultimately said and did nothing, despite accusations of torture and extra-judicial killings of FUNCINPEC officers and soldiers loyal to Ranariddh.

The Khmer Rouge had refused to take part in the elections, viewing them as a vehicle for handing control of Cambodia to the Vietnamese. They sidelined themselves and retreated to the kingdom’s western borders from where they continued to haemorrhage support as soldiers and officers kept up a steady stream of defections to one of either FUNCINPEC or the CPP. Then, even as the political coalition was in the throes of coming apart, the Khmer Rouge was dealt a further blow when in 1996 Ieng Sary, “Brother Number 3”, defected to the government from his stronghold in Pailin, delivering up access to that area’s rich minerals and 3,000 Khmer Rouge soldiers.

By 1997 in Anlong Veng, Pol Pot had become an albatross to his former followers, forever associated with mass murder and allegations of genocide. Khieu Samphan, the official leader of the Khmer Rouge since 1985, publicly denounced him. In an attempt to gain respectability the faction had ‘rebranded’ as the National Solidarity Party, and there were rumours that they had offered their former leader for “sale” in exchange for an international tribunal outside Cambodia. The US had openly suggested sending a “snatch squad” so that he could be put on trial, notwithstanding fears that he might have things to say that would embarrass not only powerful Cambodians, but also China and the US. To men with murky pasts, it must have seemed that something needed to be done.

In Phnom Penh the struggle between the two political parties meant that Pol Pot still had a certain value as a bargaining chip. Both Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh were keen to score brownie points internationally and domestically by bringing the killer before an international tribunal, and also to shore up their own powerbases with defected Khmer Rouge members. FUNCINPEC appeared to be edging close to a secret agreement that would have won them a lion’s share of that support.

Then in June, in a fit of paranoia and one last futile attempt to wrest back control, Pol Pot ordered the execution of his former defence minister, Son Sen, along with 13 members of his family including children. After they had been shot, trucks were run over their bodies.

Ta Mok, the man who effectively controlled Anlong Veng and had also been slated for execution in the same action, arrested Pol Pot on 19 June. Five weeks later, a “trial” found him guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Footage shot by American journalist Nate Thayer is surreal: a crowd of several hundred rather disinterested observers fan themselves in an open-sided shed and respond on cue as they are conditioned to with cries of “crush, crush, crush” as Pol Pot’s denouncers yell out a list of his crimes including the dwindling support for the Khmer Rouge cause. The man the world accused of responsibility for the deaths of almost 2 million people looks on, bewildered by it all.

The Khmer Rouge was hoping that the trial, held on 4 July, would help them to enlist support in their ongoing struggle against Hun Sen in Phnom Penh. Instead, spurred on by news that FUNCINPEC and the Khmer Rouge had reached a deal, he took the opportunity to finally move against Ranariddh. Over the weekend of 5 and 6 July, with tanks and guns Hun Sen secured his position as the prime minister of a nominally democratic country — and has since held on to it with threats of more of the same.

Back in Anlong Veng, Pol Pot sweated out his days imprisoned in a wooden hut. That October, Nate Thayer was the first journalist to interview him since he had been deposed in 1979. The man whose rule was underpinned by phrases such as “to destroy you is no loss, to keep you no gain” was unrepentant and even denied that the prison at Toul Sleng, where as many as 20,000 prisoners were killed, many of whom had been sent there on Pol Pot’s direct orders, had anything to do with the Khmer Rouge. He said it was instead a Vietnamese construct.

While he conceded that the movement might have made mistakes, paranoia about Vietnam and its intentions for Cambodia underpinned his every justification for what had happened in the late 1970s. As far as he was concerned, without the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia would have been subsumed by its larger neighbour, as Kampuchea Krom (in the Mekong Delta) had been in the 17th century.

Six months later, while on the run from government forces who had overrun Anlong Veng, Pol Pot finally died. The official cause of death was heart failure, though some have suggested that he poisoned himself, or was poisoned. No autopsy was carried out. He died on 17 April 1998, 23 years to the day after his forces took over and emptied Phnom Penh, starting a reign of terror that this country is still recovering from today.

A few days later, Pol Pot’s cremation was attended by a dozen people, including the photographers brought in to record the event. His widow and 14-year-old daughter were not there.

Ta Mok, the man who had put him on trial — in a manner of speaking — and who was reportedly ready to hand over his former leader to a formal international tribunal, said of his former leader, “Pol Pot has died, like a ripe papaya … Now he’s finished, he has no power, he has no rights, he is no more than cow shit. Cow shit is more important than him. We can use it for fertiliser.”

Three months later, Ta Mok was himself captured by government forces, officially marking the end of the Khmer Rouge revolution. He died in prison seven years later while awaiting trial.

Anlong Veng consists of just four roads: south to Siem Reap, east to Preah Vihear, and north to Thailand and west to O Smach, another politically interesting town. Fifteen kilometres to the north, Choam is a steep climb up the south face of the Dangrek Mountains which mark the border with Thailand.

The border crossing at Choam is slowly starting to see a little more traffic, roughly 20 to 30 people a day making the journey to Thailand. This is likely to grow as people realise that it is easier to access northern Thailand from here; easier in the sense that it is not Poipet, with everything about speed, ease and a lack of corruption (so far) that that entails. You should be through here and out the other side in under an hour. In theory.

The authorities do of course have the capacity to perhaps make things a little more difficult if you don’t have your paperwork in order, including your passport photos. Any shortfalls will no doubt be dealt with in the usual way, i.e. by payment of a small “fine”. Once you’re through to the other side, it’s roughly an hour and a half drive to either Surin or Si Saket.

Back in Anlong Veng, there is a small handful of guesthouses, with not much to distinguish them. If you need to stock up on necessities, there is a small Lucky Mart on the eastern road that goes towards Preah Vihear. You’ll find snacks and toiletries here, which may be essential if you’re planning on staying the night on Phnom Dangrek as the food in the guesthouse is somewhat sketchy. Next door you’ll find Acleda bank, which has international ATM services. Next door again, you’ll find the post office, though we would suggest waiting until you’re elsewhere if you really have things to mail. For minor ailments, Anlong Veng Referral Hospital is found just north of the roundabout. The number is (012) 656 6999. For anything serious, of course you'll want to get to Bangkok.

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Get into town, rest up, then head down to one of the restaurants near the late for a bite to eat -- if you've come from Siem Reap you'll be arriving early afternoon we'd guess. Come the next day get a motodop to take you up to explore Pol Pot and Ta Mok's digs -- the views are as stunning as Pol Pot's basement is creepy.

Text and/or map last updated on 21st August, 2015.

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