Sunday, June 11, 2017

Par 4 at the Killing Fields Country Club

Ten years ago in a move destined to have the late Cambodian despot Pol Pot spinning in his grave _ if he had one _ the former Khmer Rouge cadres in their stronghold of Pailin embraced a plan to cash in on the country's tourism boom and build a golf course. Not that they know much about the game. If football is the beautiful game, to the ultra-Maoist former guerrillas, golf is the mysterious one.

The golf fanatic Prime Minister Hun Sen visited the remote area, traveling more than 100km of rugged dirt road from the nearest city of Battambang, and proposed a golf course for the municipality.

Pailin is perched on the nation's north-western border with Thailand just four hours by road from Bangkok, but up to 10 hours from the Cambodian capital.

Hun Sen was possibly the only country leader in the world to list his golf scores on his website.

Cambodia was so serious about developing golf as an industry that it has appointed a special representative to the Council of Ministers. The former Khmer Rouge are ecstatic.

Once rich in gems and timber, these resources were all but stripped bare by the Khmer Rouge as they tried to finance the remnants of the rebel movement by selling off the country's resouces before the rebels finally conceded to join Hun Sen's government in 1996.

Even journalists don't bother to go Paillin any more since four of its most infamous residents _ former Khmer Rouge leaders Ieng Sary, his wife Ieng Thirith, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea _ were arrested on orders from the court set up to try them.

Pailin's biggest draw currently are its mainly Thai-owned casinos, which operators say draw up to 10,000 Thais per month. But thiese gaming houses lie within a quick sprint of the border and more than 12 rough kilometres from Pailin town, so most gamblers drop their money there and go no further. Nor does Pailin have the attractions of other former Khmer Rouge border strong-holds such as Anlong Veng, which at least boasts the makeshift cremation site of the movement's leader Pol Pot and Khmer Rouge military commander Ta Mok's home, complete with war room. So the former hardline communists, who drove the country to destruction in their 1975-79 failed bid to turn the nation into an agrarian utopia bereft of social classes, which left up to 2 million dead, have joyfully embraced a new ideology _ golf.

"We don't understand this game and at the moment it is just a speech by the prime minister, but it would be great for Pailin,'' says local Information Chief Kong Duong, once a Khmer Rouge propaganda chief.

He says he has never seen a golf ball, except on television. "We don't know where we will put [the course], or how big it should be, but the idea is good."

Pailin Tourism Chief So Korng is candid. He freely admits that to him, an iron is for pressing clothes, a wood is something you cut down to make furniture, and Tiger Woods is a place you never go alone or unarmed. But he agrees that the concept is attractive.

''People will have more jobs, and many people inside Cambodia and from overseas will come to visit Pailin and also see our natural attractions like our waterfall, gem shops, mountains and our agricultural programs," he said.

Revenue from the golf course may even pay for a road to the municipality's spectacular, but remote waterfall.

A former soldier who fought the Khmer Rouge in the early 1990s said the now-tamed rebels should also make good caddies.

"I've seen them climb mountains with two B-40 rockets strapped to their backs, so golf clubs should be no problem."

That would be a whole new revolution for a movement better known for its infamous black pajama uniform than plaid and plus fours. But not everyone is convinced. A spokesman for local non-government organization Buddhism for Development says golf was for the rich, and he doubted there will be much trickle-down for the impoverished former Khmer Rouge farmers in the area.

"The former Khmer Rouge are poor. They are too busy farming to have time to play golf," he said. And then there is the image problem. In a 2006 interview a senior Pailin tourism official laughingly admitted that the very concept of tourism remained somewhat alien. ''Before, our orders were to kill them, but now we invite them to visit and please spend money,"

It won't be on the killing fields

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