The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Hanging out with the Cambodian border patrol

A few weeks ago, I headed to the Thai-Cambodian border to try and follow illegal migrants across the border (read about it here). I wasn’t able to smuggle myself across with the migrants. I only got as far the point where they bribe the Cambodian border authorities.

As we were waiting for more migrants to interview on the Cambodian side, we were hanging out with the Cambodian border patrol. All of them were middle-aged, ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers, and most of them had been in the army for over 30 years. As far as I could tell, their only source of income was accepting small bribes from illegal migrants. The cluster of about five buildings on the border is isolated from most of Cambodia by landmines. The land is dotted with thousands of them, and just the night before a small fire had broken out over a few acres and about 40 mines exploded. After hearing that, they didn’t need to remind us to stay on the path.

The soldiers and their families grow most of their own food, raise their own livestock, and—as I would found out—make all their own whiskey. Most of the rest of their supplies appear to come from Thailand.

Our translator, being a former government soldier in the 1980s, informed us he knew exactly what the soldiers wanted. Before I knew it, he had come back with a jug, and we’re all drinking home-made rice whiskey.

It was noon.

As middle-aged Cambodians, these men have surely seen a lot, and I can only begin imagine what they did as KR soldiers. The KR period was grim, and in this area of Cambodia, the KR era didn’t really end till the 1990s. But, as is often the case, you’d never guess their past. These soldiers were absolutely giddy by having two barangs (white people) drinking with them. One soldier in particular was constantly goading me to drink and laughed everytime I took a sip.

Without a regular salary, these men would have no choice but to turn to corruption. Before we can fault them for accepting bribes, the Cambodian government needs to at least pay them enough to live. Corruption in Cambodia runs all the way through from the poorest soldiers to richest generals, but in the case of some of the soldiers, they have no real choice so long as someone up the line is pocketing their income.

In stark contrast, the much younger Thai soldiers with their M-16s largely ignored us, and when they did talk, they were much more media aware, bragging about how much they helped Cambodians fight fires as their side had a firetruck and a road.

No one wanted to talk about the illegal migrants (which says something in its own right), but the Cambodians at least would were happy to drink with us.