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From the Battlefield to the Kitchen : Small Phnom Penh factory capitalizes on a resource made plentiful by two decades of war, transforming weaponry into pots

October 19, 1987|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | Times Staff Writer

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Raw material is a problem for most of Cambodia's fledgling factories, but not for the Phnom Penh Pot Co. Its basic ingredient still litters the ground of this war-ravaged country.

Phnom Penh Pot makes aluminum kitchenware, and much of the metal comes from the weapons of war, a plentiful resource here.

The owner, Yang To, recently led a visitor through a doorway marked by a skull and crossbones into the smelter room. "There's what we use," he said, pointing to 15-foot-high stacks of old bomb casings, aircraft parts, mortar shells and rifle grenades.

After more than two decades of almost continuous war, the Cambodian countryside is littered with war material. "People out in the old battle areas collect it and sell it to a middleman," Yang To explained. "We buy it from him."

Much of the material, he said, comes from the provinces of Kompong Speu, Kompong Chhnang and Battambang, all west of the capital. And much of it is American-made, the scrap of the 1970-75 battles between the U.S.-backed forces of Gen. Lon Nol and his Communist enemies.

"I cannot make ammunition, but I can use old ammunition to make pots for the people," the 49-year-old entrepreneur declared patriotically. His business, however, is strictly private and operated for profit.

Yang To, formerly a watch repairman, started Phnom Penh Pot with his own money in late 1979, after the Khmer Rouge regime was driven from power here. "I was thinking people need pots and thinking I could make some money," he said.

Now he controls 20% of the market, vying in state and private markets with imports from Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

He pays a monthly tax of about $470, double the 1986 levy, and rent of a little more than $200. But he still makes a profit, enough to permit him to travel to Ho Chi Minh City in neighboring Vietnam last month to buy a new grinding machine.

But Phnom Penh Pot is far from a tidy, up-to-date factory. The ramshackle building holds a jerry-built smelter for turning weapons and old pots into aluminum stock. Rough-molded pots are scraped to a finer finish by sarong-clad youths using a tool that resembles a tire iron.

Work begins at 3 a.m., which is a bit hard on sleeping neighbors but means a cooler workplace. The 23 workers do their jobs without goggles or other safety devices. But flying metal filings are just a minor inconvenience around Phnom Penh Pot.

"The main problem is the ammunition," Yang To conceded. "Every now and then, boom! One of the boys threw an M-79 rifle grenade in the smelter the other day. Boom! You have to be careful."

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