Last days for guerrilla currency
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 Bill Bainbridge and Lon Nara
"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Shortly after it had been issued the new money was withdrawn and, while the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
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
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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