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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hunting KR roots among hill tribes

Hunting KR roots among hill tribes

Academic Henri Locard unveils research which throws new light on the guerrillas

and their leader Pol Pot

Thirty years ago, for travel-ers Ratanakiri like my self, the province's rolling

hills with well-lined rubber-trees stretching to the horizons belied the fact that

this was soon to become the first breeding ground of the dreaded Khmer Rouge. It

was there that one Saloth Sar, known to everybody now as Pol Pot, came in mid-1966

with the lessons of China's Cultural Revolution fresh in his mind. But a revolution

needs foot soldiers and that Ratanakiri had in the form of its many hill-tribes.

What followed was the little-known story of how ethnic minorities played a critical

role in the early years of the Khmer Rouge; it is also a role which analysts tend

to underestimate.

The main tribes of the Khmer Loeu were the Prous, the Kreungs, the Jarais and the

Tampuans. But how were their hearts and minds won over by the newly-arrived Maoist

firebrands? One theory advanced by some academics says that the Khmer Loeu [hill

tribes] were already seething with discontent against the then Sihanouk government

and the Khmer Rouge exploited that. This is not true going by the recollections of

the hill-tribes living in the area. They could recall odd unhappy incidents with

misbehaving soldiers sent by the government but there was never a state of rebellion.

The conversion tactics of the Khmer Rouge were chillingly simple. Basically, Ta Pouk

[an earlier name for Pol Pot] concentrated on the young. And words were important,

words spoken by him in a warm and mellow voice projected from what was then commonly

perceived as a gentle personality. His political philosophy was "troeu, troeu,

troeu - deep, deep, deep" - as one witness admiringly recalled.

He would also send a peace-loving messenger to a village, a Khmer Kandal [mainstream

Khmer] at first, then more and more, a recruited Khmer Loeu who would perch secretly,

and then more and more openly. Young Khmer Loeu in those years were always recruited

on a voluntary basis, usually to attend courses in medical training, then the political

indoctrination followed. Khieu Thirith, the Sorbonne educated wife of Ieng Sary,

and later Minister of Social Affairs in the Democratic Kampuchea government, was

in charge of the political training which was delivered with a large dose of Maoism.

The Khmer Rouge spoke to the tribes of a world where there would be no wars, because

there would be no poor. Many listened, a few joined in the hope of a better world.

As the number of converts grew, the Khmer Rouge became more confident and began to

infiltrate the local bureaucracy. They replaced all village leaders chosen by Phnom

Penh, and put in their stead Ta Pouk's new converts. They were taught Khmer by the

charismatic Tiv Oll, the well-known Khmer language specialist who taught at the Lycee

Preah Sihanouk, and who had also joined the Khmer Rouge in the forest early. He was

the right person to teach young Khmer Loeu: not only was he loved by children, but

he had written in 1957 an excellent Khmer language teaching method cleverly designed

for foreigners. He finished his career at Toul Sleng. He wrote in his confession

that, at the time, "there were exclusively Khmer Loeu around Angkar [= Pol Pot].

They were his eyes and his ears" (Note: Toul Sleng archives, No. T2, Folio 46,

July 2, 1977)

Ta Pouk could also have had a fundamental affinity for the Khmer Loeu, seeing in

these Mon-Khmer and Austronesian groups, people unaffected by the Indianization of

the past two thousand year that has shaped Cambodia's mainstream culture. An Indian

writing system, Buddhist religion, the Khmer calendar and the monarchy have no meaning

for hill tribes. They would constitute the age-old base of a genuine Kampuchean revolutionary

society, free from corrupting alien influences, and Cambodian history could resume

its march forward at lightning speed. Or as another telling Khmer Rouge slogan was

to reveal of the party's awful creed: "Only a newborn infant, only him is spotless"

(Mean tae kon kmeng noeung kaet te toeup sa'at so'om). Such unsophisticated highland

tribes were to become the newborn babes of the beginning revolution, in a manner

of speaking.

In such classic Marxist tactics - cadres wooing simple peasants by force of persuasion,

persistence and example - there is usually a stage at the beginning of intimidation.

As Ta Pouk built his bases or munthis as they are called, he also set up a network

of nearesas or spies- cum-messengers again largely drawn from these highland minority

tribes. He had everyone checked and watched. Each kamaphibal (cadre) had to write,

or have written for him his provnaterup, (confession or life-history) once a month.

Pol Pol personally saw to it that each individual cadre from the srok (district)

level upward expressed in those an absolute submission to the will of Angkar Padevoat

(Revolutionary Organization). In case of doubts, the person would be checked out

by the spies and exterminated in the forest if the doubts were confirmed. According

to one witness, Ta Pouk saw to the vaporization - to paraphrase Orwell - of some

300 of his followers during his years in this area.

And where exactly was this base in Ratanakiri? It was situated on the Southern bank

of the Tonle Se San, the main Northern river flowing east to west and joining the

wider Tonle Srepok, that runs parallel, to the west at the volcanic plateau, a little

upstream from Stung Treng. Like all insurgents on the run, Ta Pouk shifted camp often;

according to tribes people who remember those days, he would stay in one base for

4-5 days or sometimes up to two months. It is difficult to find any of these camps

now as the structures are unlikely to have lasted through these years but some hill-tribes

people interviewed could still remember clearly one a couple of km north of Bokeo,

in a thickly wooded area around Phnom Ban Lay (the name given on my Vietnamese map).

In a typical camp or Munthi 100, Ta Pouk's house and working quarters would be located

right at the center, usually consisting of three buildings: his own room with a bed

and cane writing desk, a chair and files, papers and books. Next to it, and, within

the same enclosure, was a meeting hall to welcome visitors, together with a party

school where Ta Pouk conducted study sessions for cadres. He also had his individual

tranchee (this is the French word Khmers use), a Vietnamese-modeled sophisticated

bunker, where he could take refuge in case of threats from the air. He had his five

bodyguards, probably all Jarais, constantly with him. It was the most secret area

of the Munthi - only the most trustworthy people could have access to it, after passing

through a number of checkpoints. This inner circle was surrounded by a ditch bristling

with sharp-pointed bamboo spikes and generally also mined. There were at least one

entrance and one escape route diametrically on the opposite side which led to another

even more secret hiding place.

Within the next enclosure were scattered on all sides about a dozen bamboo huts of

various sizes which housed his retinue and trusted friends, with their wives, the

trainees of the study sessions and, of course, a large number of soldiers, Khmer

Kandals and Khmer Loeu. There were several other tranchees within this enclosure

too, each for about thirty persons. The surrounding ditch similar to that of the

inner circle, was also dotted with mines.

Contrary to popular expectation that life for such single-minded revolutionary would

be austere, Ta Pouk and the Khmer leaders lived well in their camps. He would travel

on foot but when he was tired he would be carried in a hammock. Beside his five personal

bodyguards, there were ten to twenty attendants. According to eye-witnesses, Ta Pouk

was even brought boiled washing water at sophisticated Munthis.

If the Khmer Loeu served him well, how did these gentle highlanders fare as the revolution

progressed in Ta Pouk or Pol Pot's favor and his power grew? The hill tribes did

constitute Pol Pot's favorite Mulethan - or "base people". True, some ground

rules of terror were the same as the revolution got under way: if a husband escaped

to Vietnam, the wife was immediately executed in retaliation but the rate of extermination

was comparatively low as a whole. But the highlands were also subject to all the

so-called utopian schemes of collectivization. This was to destroy all the customs

and ceremonies, and even traditional medicine practices, of the tribes. All were

lumped together into sahakos comprising from 3-4 to 7-8 old villages. Since villages

had an average of 300 people, the collectives, as nationally, always included over

1,000 people.

Like the rest of the country once the Khmer Rouge took control, working hours became

unreasonably long and meals were made communal and reduced to two a day. The food

was barely sufficient, with hardly any meat or fish, though much more abundant than

most other places in the rest of the country. What was different was that the local

cadres would turn a blind eye if people rummaged for food and ate some breakfast

at home. There was no real starvation and women produced numerous babies, as usual.

Khmer Rouge soldiers even occasionally came back for rest periods.

Most of the babies would survive; for there were better organized hospitals in the

region than at any time the history of Ratanakiri, before and after! Hospitals did

not lack any medicines and according to eye-witnesses, Chinese medicines were plentiful.

The other surprise was that the Ratanakiri collectives were the only ones in the

entire country provided with schools, where all children were taught to read and

write exclusively the Khmer language in the morning, along with the usual slogans

and revolutionary songs, while manual labor was organized in the afternoons. It would

be unfair to say of the highland tribes that they were so unquestioningly devoted

to Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. Indeed if Pol Potism was born in Ratanakiri, it also

first died there! Being collectivized earlier than the rest of the country, they

also had the first taste of what life was going to be like under these obsessed revolutionaries.

In the chaotic months before the Khmer Rouge took over the whole country in 1975,

a number of Khmer Loeu villages, whole communities with their leaders, took the opportunity

to run away to Laos and Vietnam and joined their ethnic compatriots on the other

side of the border. After 1979, they were persuaded to come back by the Heng Samrin


But there is still a last and unfinished act to this tragedy, perhaps its saddest.

When the Khmer Rouge had to flee the Vietnamese in 1979, they forced entire Khmer

Loeu communities to accompany them. Some groups made for the northwest, towards Stung

Treng; others were pushed towards the south and Mondolkiri. While some of this forced

migration was aborted by the Vietnamese army, the Khmer Rouge persuaded 15-30 adolescents

per village (one third of them girls, two thirds boys) to run away with them to the

Thai border, and there they remain to this very day, fighting for these mad revolutionaries.

Every village remembers their names. Are they alive or dead? They have been trickling

back over the years, drawing a curtain on the terrible experiences they lived. Some

are still with Pol Pot, probably now married. They have never been exposed to the

real world and must still share the wild visions of their ghastly prophet Pol Pot.

- Henri Locard, author of Prisonnier de l'Angkar, is a visiting lecturer in the

History Department of the University of Phnom Penh. He is currently researching the

revolutionary culture of the Khmer Rouge and has made recent field trips to Ratanakiri.



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