Last days for guerrilla currency

By Bill Bainbridge and Lon Nara

TEN Sophal's antiques stall at Phnom Penh's Russian Market doesn't display his 1993 Khmer Rouge (KR) currency: it is simply too rare and too valuable to be left out with the other denominations from Cambodia's history.

"By the end of next year there'll be no notes left," he says.

The 1993 notes represent the KR's second attempt at creating a currency. In January 1975, before it came to power, the KR printed a wide range of denominations but vacillated on whether to put them into circulation. Within a day of seizing Phnom Penh in April 1975, the KR declared that money was to be abolished.
The notes that had sustained the economy until that point were suddenly worthless, and gleeful DR soldiers literally tossed the old currency in the air.

However the dream of a society without money was short lived. Within three weeks the new currency began circulating in parts of Cambodia. the notes were printed with images from the revolution as its architects had dreamed it would be.

Scenes depicted included Angkor Wat, the symbol of the Khmer nation, earnest looking peasants working together, harvesting side by side with soldiers, and young revolutionary women hoisting rocket launchers on their shoulders.

Shortly after it had been issued the new money was withdrawn and, while the decision on releasing it changed several more times, the view that eventually prevailed was that the new agrarian paradise was to be a cashless society.

Most of the bills never left the safety of the National Bank of Cambodia until Pol Pot's Troops deserted. Phnom Penh, blew up the bank and showered the streets with mint condition bills. the first visitors to the Cambodian capital in 1979 were treated to the bizarre spectacle of streets empty of people but flooded with cash and the gutters literally flowing with money. Starving children used the notes to start fires.

The invading Vietnamese troops pocketed large wads of the cash that had been left in the national bank and took it home at the end of their tour of duty. Sophal says he used to make regular trips to Vietnam to buy old banknotes but complains that these days they are hard to find.

The 1993 currency is a different story. In the early and mid 1990s the DR banned the use of the official Cambodian riel in their stronghold areas of Pailin and Anlong Veng and once more embarked on an attempt at developing a currency of their own. they produced 5,10,20,50 and 100 riel notes in a local Anlong Veng printing press. the ideological imagery of the 1975 currency was replaced by tourist brochure style images of Cambodia printed cheaply and slightly off-center on small bills, many carrying the exactly the same serial number.

The notes carry the obligatory pictures of Angkor Wat as well as images of houses on the Tonle Sap and a Khmer New Year festival being held in the Pailin forest. they also bear the hallmarks of an official currency with the signature of Khieu Samphan in the bottom left hand corner. For their short period of circulation the bills were simply referred to as "Khieu Samphan currency"

The lack of a government or central bank did not deter the KR from its attempt to raise their fortunes through the use of the currency. It simply tied the value of the currency to the value of the Thai baht at a rate of one riel per baht.

At a time when the official riel was in free fall against the US dollar the value of the KR's own cash was fixed.

In March 1993 the issuing of the guerrilla currency was thought to be a factor in an 80 percent plummet in the value of the official riel. The new riel added to the uncertainty of the official Cambodian currency and the KR was rumored to be buying up Combodian notes then dumping huge numbers of them in Phnom Penh markets to exacerbate the currency crisis.

Yet it 3was not only the official currency that was vulnerable. By August the Khmer Rouge had ordered that the five month old currency be burned to prevent it from falling into the hands of Cambodian government troops. In an eerie echo of 1979 when government troops did arrive in Pailin in early 1994 and found the town littered with the strange bills, the currency had already gone out of circulation.

Sophal says that it was only after the 1996 defection of KR troops that the experimental currency found its way to Phnom Penh's markets.

Former soldiers sought him out to sell their old notes, which had become worthless. He in turn discovered that there was a tidy profit in selling the souvenir bills to the foreigners who frequented his market stall.

"There are no sellers left in Cambodia. there won't be any more notes at all after next year."


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