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Pol Pot: the secret 60s


Building the "people's war" among the tribal



Pol Pot courted Cambodia's northern tribal communities till his twisted revolution turned on them as well. As a present-day aside, the Cambodian Documentation Center has no photographs of tribal people who were tortured and killed at Tuol Sleng: the AKP photo above, believed taken in Ratanakiri in the late-70s, graphically shows the fate that many of his earliest "proletariat" suffered.

Pol Pot built his first base of popular support among the tribal minorities in

the forests of Cambodia's northwest in the mid-1960s, after crackdowns by Prince

Norodom Sihanouk caused many leftists in Phnom Penh to flee to the maquis.

The Khmer Rouge recruited core members from among the indigenous groups in the northwestern

provinces of Ratanakiri, Mondolkiri, Stung Treng, and Kratie and gradually built

a strong revolutionary base there.

The rebels were able to exploit growing resentment by the tribal minorities of the

central government, and then step in as a replacement after the March 1970 coup d'état.

General Lon Nol, who ousted Sihanouk in the coup, never gained a foothold in Cambodia's

four northeastern provinces, which became a Khmer Rouge "liberated zone"

in 1970.

At the urging of US military advisers, Lon Nol withdrew all Cambodian government

forces from the northeast in June 1970, conceding almost one-quarter of the country's

land area to the Khmer Rouge at the very beginning of the civil war. Possession of

this large swathe of land was key to the Khmer Rouge's ultimate victory. The rebel

group gained substantial territory in which to recruit and train a military force

and increase their support base among the population.

Beginning in 1970, US bombing in the northeast forced the local people out of their

villages and into the forests, where they lived with the Khmer Rouge. By undergoing

the rigorous early days of "the struggle" together with the Khmer Rouge,

the indigenous populations measured up to the rebels' revolutionary standards.

Pol Pot seemed to have romanticized the untarnished, "politically correct"

nature of the tribal minorities, portraying them as unfamiliar with capitalism and

practicing communism in its purest form. In a 1978 statement, Pol Pot described the

highlanders as "completely illiterate people who did not have even the slightest

idea of cities, automobiles and parliament [but who] dared to fight under the guidance

of The Party." In another instance he said the highland Khmer were "like

beasts under an extremely cruel regime of exploitation Ö [they] had known only humiliations

and contempt."

Pol Pot saw the highlanders as trustworthy, loyal supporters of Angkar. He not only

used them as his personal bodyguards and couriers throughout his career, but promoted

them into the leadership of the Khmer Rouge in the Northeast, where they served in

positions as high as damban (region) chief. He saw their traditional lifestyle as

well suited to communal living, and often talked about the Communist Party of Kampuchea

(CPK)'s solidarity with their "fraternal ethnic brothers and sisters" (bang

pa'on chun chiet).

Initially many of the highlanders were receptive to KR rhetoric as an alternative

to the policies of central government in the 1960s. The rebels arrived at a time

when the highlanders were unhappy with Sihanouk's assimilation programs, abuses by

local military and police, and displacement from their traditional lands by rubber

plantation developments. The ground was ripe for fresh ideas and new leadership.

In a recent interview, a Kachok villager in Andong Meas district of Ratanakiri explained

why his whole village joined the Khmer Rouge in 1968: "Pol Pot was together

with the people here; he traveled here and educated the people to struggle against

America. Sihanouk had no ability to control here. Sihanouk ran to China, Ranariddh

was in France, Pol Pot was here in Ratanakiri, in the Naga's Tail. The people really

liked the Khmer Rouge then. We were all joining together to be at the same level

in society, regardless of what ethnic group we belonged to."

A Jarai who was recruited in 1964 to serve as a guide for the Khmer Rouge in O Yadao

district of Ratanakiri described the affinity between the rebels and the highlanders:

"People were very interested in Pol Pot's ideology in the beginning. During

the Sihanouk regime the civil servants and military worked separately from the people

and only came if there was a problem. But the Khmer Rouge worked closely with the

people - even if people had less food under the Khmer Rouge, the people were interested

in them. We knew the Khmer Rouge wanted to build a strong society and would change

leaders if they did wrong."

A Kavet from Siempang district of Stung Treng said that everyone he knew was with

the Khmer Rouge in the 1960s: "They told us about the struggle of the poor against

the rich. They said they would win the war and occupy the whole country. We believed

in them."

Undoubtedly in many instances there was an element of coercion and fear in enlisting

the "popular support" of the highland groups. A Tampuen from Lumphat district

of Ratanakiri put it bluntly: "Like, not like [the Khmer Rouge] - that's irrelevant.

We were afraid they would kill us. It's complicated. They led us away, didn't provide

enough to eat. We'd see one or two people killed for saying the wrong thing, or who

opposed them. You see a person killed, then you don't dare to say anything. You keep

quiet and follow orders. We could not avoid joining them because the majority had

joined them already. The rest, even if they didn't like them, had to follow. If one

or two of us didn't follow, what were we to do? How were we to survive on our own

if the rest of the village went with them?"

The Hidden Camps

From 1964-65 Pol Pot's main headquarters - "Office 100" - was located on

the border of Kampong Cham and Vietnam. It is unclear whether the base was in Cambodia

or Vietnam, or whether it moved around to escape detection and attack. During this

time Khmer Rouge leaders Ieng Sary and Son Sen began to be seen frequently in the

northeast, where they started to convene meetings in covert forest camps and recruit

highland people as "snol" - clandestine village contacts who were charged

with enlisting others in the movement.

In a 1977 speech, Pol Pot described the Khmer Rouge strategy during the 1960s: "Secret

work was the fundamental thing," he said. "It allowed us to defend the

revolutionary forces and also allowed us to arouse the people. If all or too great

a number of us had been working openly, the enemy would have been able to destroy

many or all of us."

Kreung villagers living in O'Chum district of Ratanakiri recall their first contacts

with Pol Pot's rebels: "In one village they'd call one person to a meeting.

It was Tnak Loeu [Upper Level] - but the people would not know where the person was

going, or what the meeting was about. At that time the chun chiet (ethnic minorities)

didn't know what was going on, who the leader was. All we knew was Tnak Loeu. All

orders from Tnak Loeu came from one or two people who had gone to the meetings. The

chun chiet would do what was asked, without really thinking. For example if they

had us make 500 bamboo spikes per person per day we would do it without any argument

at all, without asking what the purpose was."

The Khmer Rouge conducted clandestine campaigns in a similar manner in other parts

of the northeast. "I was the one they called to study at the munti (office),"

said a Kavet from Siempang district of Stung Treng. "They called the one they

trusted, the one who was straight and who wouldn't betray them. Back in my village

I taught the villagers how to make punji sticks and crossbows to protect the village,

and also explained about the class struggle. The people would sit around at night

to listen to me."

In Mondolkiri, the Cambodian rebels began to make their presence known in the early

1960s as well. "I heard about them studying chun chiet languages, mixing with

the traders, making propaganda to the minority people," said a Pnong from Pich

Chenda district.

In September 1966, Pol Pot organized a conference of the party Center at a secret

base called Munti "Daem Padeak" (a tree name). "One of the most important

contents of the meeting was preparing the peoples' war; learning how to make the

traps and punji sticks from the jute in Ratanakiri," recalled Khmer Rouge cadre

Kheang Seum Han (known as Ta But).

Towards the end of 1966, Office 100 was closed to escape bombing attacks by US and

South Vietnamese forces, and the Khmer Rouge leadership based their activities farther

north in Ratanakiri. Pol Pot decided that the military forces would be divided, with

some deployed in Ratanakiri and others focusing in areas further south. It was decided

that Ieng Sary, who had conducted training in the northeast since the early 1960s,

would lead a group to Ratanakiri at the end of 1966, where Office 102 would be based.

Pol Pot followed later. In 1967 he walked from Office 100 to Office 102, where he

recovered from a bout of malaria before proceeding to Office 104 in Stung Treng to

meet party leaders.

After a study session and zone conference the same year, duties were divided up for

what was called Zone 102 - which comprised three provinces at that time: Stung Treng,

Ratanakiri and Mondolkiri.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, members of the CPK Center directly controlled

the Northeast Zone, when its dense forests sheltered the headquarters and covert

camps of the top leadership. During this time the zone was directly administered

by Ieng Sary, Son Sen, and other members of the Party Center in close consultation

with Pol Pot.

The northeast was a logical place for Pol Pot to build the party's first base of

popular support. It had a supportive population, ample natural resources and secure

hiding places for military training camps and the party's headquarters. As a border

region, the northeast was easily accessible to Vietnamese communist allies at a time

when the Khmer Rouge was still collaborating with them.

Around 1964, Ieng Sary organized a large three-day conference for several hundred

people north of the Sesan River. Simple thatch huts were constructed as part of a

temporary training center in the forest, according to Brou villagers who were living

along O Ta Bok stream at the time. One villager said: "Ieng Sary was the big

man in Ratanakiri at that time. We knew him as "Van". He was a big man,

tall like a barang. He walked like a barang. He urged us to oppose the United States

and make revolution against those who invade Kampuchea. I only knew his face but

couldn't go near him. I was a small person, an ordinary person, and he was the leader.

No one dared to speak to Ieng Sary at that time. We were afraid of the leaders."

In 1967, Pol Pot conducted at least one training - a month-long meeting for 50 highland

leaders in Andong Meas district of Ratanakiri near the Vietnam border. "Pol

Pot was clearly the leader at that meeting," said a Brou leader who attended

the conference. "The message of the meeting was that the important thing was

not to shake the hands of the enemy, who were the Lon Nol soldiers. Also, that there

should be solidarity between Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia; we should not abandon each

other. We needed to prepare arms in order to have enough military force for the struggle.

Finally, we needed to take over lowland Cambodia from the mountains. Once we got

to the lowlands, we must then take the cities.

"Our impressions of Pol Pot then were very good. The people loved him. He would

live and die with the people. He acted very properly. No one dreamed that things

would go the way they did. Pol Pot really liked the ethnic minorities - he said we

were the best. All his rice and food came from us. He said that he had to depend

on the chun chiet but the majority of the people, the lowland Cambodians, also must

have good solidarity with us and needed to try to unite with us."

Many informants in Ratanakiri and Stung Treng reported seeing Pol Pot and Ieng Sary

- and sometimes their wives as well - being carried in hammocks through the forests.

An ethnic Lao who joined the rebel army at the time said he first saw Pol Pot in

Siempang (Stung Treng) around 1968 or 69. "They carried him in a hammock in

difficult areas - not because he was sick or weak, but because he was an important

person (loke thom); the leader of the country," he said. "They carried

him every day, but not all day. Sometimes he walked by himself but not too often."

There were usually 50 people in Pol Pot's entourage, the former soldier said, some

carrying him and some guarding him. Some guards walked right with him and others

were positioned at a distance to provide an extra layer of security. In Taveng, a

Lun villager said: "We carried Pol Pot because he was the big man, neak thom.

He'd lie down in the hammock and not walk. More than 10 or 20 people in a day would

carry him up and down the mountains. When they carried him if they brushed him against

a branch, they'd beat the porter."

Ieng Sary, military commander Bun Mi, and other top leaders of the Khmer Rouge stayed

much of the time in a hidden camp in the Naga's Tail in Taveng near the Ratanakiri-Vietnam

border. Called the sala niyobay, or political school, it was located in the forest

up O Ta Bok stream, north of the Sesan River.

Local Brou villagers living along Ta Bok stream were recruited to cook food for large

meetings held at the base, although only a select few would actually enter the camp.

"They didn't tell us where they were staying - where the office was," said

an elder from Ban Thai village. "They didn't trust us. We wouldn't know where

they would go, where their base was. They'd go secretly and not let us know."

From 1968 to 1970, in addition to the sala niyobay, the Khmer Rouge's main base in

the northeast - code-named A-5 - was located in present-day Andong Meas district.

During this time Pol Pot was rarely seen in the Northeast Zone, although he frequently

stayed on the Vietnamese border near Andong Meas - coming across to Munti A-5 to

lead meetings. He also made regular trips to Siempang in northern Stung Treng, perhaps

to oversee the cross-border traffic in arms and supplies flowing to and from Vietnam.

"The place we went to study was in Andong Meas but Pol Pot generally stayed

on the other side in Vietnam, coming in for meetings and then returning to the other

side afterwards," said a Brou who was working for the rebels as deputy chief

of Taveng at the time. "I never asked exactly where Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were

- that would be wrong. It was best to keep it a secret."

In addition to the Khmer Rouge camps, Vietcong/North Vietnamese Army (NVA) established

some 20 bases in Cambodia along the borders with Laos and Vietnam - including six

in the northeast - to facilitate movement of supplies to forces in Vietnam.

The most important of the bases in the northeast was "Base Area 609" in

the Naga's Tail in Taveng, where the 2nd NVA Division directed operations in Kontum,

Pleiku and Darlac provinces. Located there was an underground hospital and military

training camp called Munti 32 or Sala Yothea, built by Vietnamese soldiers to train

highlanders for a 500-strong Special Forces unit, known after 1975 as Battalion 802.

"The camp was in the jungle - we didn't cut the trees down so that the airplanes

wouldn't see us," said a Tampuen who trained as a young teenager there, starting

in 1970. "We lived and studied in large covered bunkers that we dug into the


The Turmoil of 1968

By 1968, popular discontent among the tribal minorities was boiling over about land

confiscation, excessive taxation, and other abuses by the local authorities, police,

and military throughout the northeast. In 1966 and again in 1968, Brou, Kreung and

Tampuen villagers in Ratanakiri clashed with local authorities over encroachment

from the proposed 8,000-hectare Preah Sihanouk State Rubber Plantation. When they

were brutally suppressed by government forces - who looted and destroyed their villages

- many highlanders fled to the forests, where they joined the Khmer Rouge rebels.

Other parts of the northeast were simmering with discontent as well. In eastern Ratanakiri,

Jarai villagers reported that "forest troops" exhorted the highlanders

to protest government repression and appropriation of livestock. "The government

would send special commandos to find the leader of the Khmer Rouge in a village,"

said a Jarai from O Yadao district. "They would surround the village, and if

they did not find Khmer Rouge they'd confiscate the villagers' chickens or pigs."

In Vonsai district, the Khmer Rouge organized the people to demonstrate against local

authorities taking taxes on boats, fish and livestock.

In O'Chum 200 stick-wielding Kreung launched a demonstration in Prieng village in

1968 - incited by the Khmer Rouge - after soldiers burned down several houses there.

Additional government soldiers were dispatched to the village. "When they got

there, there was a wedding going on and they fired into a crowd of people, slaughtering

20 or 30 like pigs," a Kreung villager said. "The people were very afraid

and ran into the jungle, joining the 'forest soldiers' who encouraged us to make

cross-bows, traps and punji sticks to defend the village."

Similar incidents were taking place in Mondolkiri, where government troops stepped

outside their bounds in searching for rebels. "General Lon Nol sent soldiers

to crack down on the insurgency," said a Khmer who was sent to Mondolkiri in

1968 as a volunteer Khmer teacher. "The soldiers did tremendous damage to the

indigenous people when they'd go into the villages, plundering and raping. The police

did the same when they collected taxes. Later the government sent teachers in-officially

to teach Khmer, but really it was a Khmerization effort. We went in with free medical

care. Our presence there slowed down the insurgency."

Prince Sihanouk visited Ratanakiri in early February 1968. A splashy six-page photo

spread in Cambodge magazine showed a beaming prince greeting hill tribe dancers and

visiting waterfalls. At a news conference on February 9 upon his return to Phnom

Penh, Sihanouk said that rebels in Ratanakiri had been subdued and had failed to

win the support of the population.

The problem was far from over, however. Pol Pot had just convened the first military

training cell in Ratanakiri in February, 1968, which was brought to an abrupt halt

when Lon Nol soldiers came on a rampage. Closing the school, Pol Pot dispatched the

guerrilla trainees directly to the battlefield.

In March 1968, the KR moved beyond inciting villagers to protest and tried launching

scattered military attacks of its own in a dry season offensive coordinated in several

parts of the country. Pol Pot noted in his 1977 speech: "March 30, 1968: It

was the turn of the Northeast Zone for an uprising. Four or five guns were captured.

Added to the three or four previously used to defend the headquarters of the Party's

Central Committee, we had a total of 10 guns for the entire zone."

The Phnom Penh government responded to the revolt by appointing a new governor in

Ratanakiri and increasing its military presence from two to five battalions. At this

point the number of highland rebels was estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 by Sihanouk army

officials. In March 1968, Sihanouk charged that the North Vietnamese were arming

and training the highland dissidents in Ratanakiri.

By May of that year, however, Sihanouk went on Phnom Penh radio to accuse the Khmer

Rouge of arming the highlanders and ordering them to fire on government forces. "I

could not allow this and took stringent measures which resulted in the annihilation

of 180 and the capture of 30 ringleaders, who were subsequently shot," Sihanouk

said. "I do not care if I am sent to hell, Ö I will submit the pertinent documents

to the devil himself."

The 1969 Offensive

In November 1969, Cambodian government forces under Col Sak Sutsakhan launched "Operation

Test VC/NVA" in Ratanakiri to determine the strength and location of Vietnamese

forces and bases. The offensive, which involved operations near Bokeo, Lumphat and

at several points on the Sesan River, evidently was not very successful. Sutsakhan

said that Vietnamese forces were under orders not to engage in direct combat with

the government forces and left the fighting "to their auxiliary troops, the

dissident Khmer Loeu [Highland Khmer]."

Of the Khmer Rouge's success in the 1969 offensive Pol Pot later said, "Using

the tactics of guerrilla warfare, we were able to attack the enemy, defend our support

base, consolidate and extend the guerrilla base, and consolidate and extend the guerrilla

zone." He claimed that the government dispatched 18 battalions, or "a third

of their army" in the offensive. Khmer Rouge forces then numbered only 150 soldiers

in the northeast, Pol Pot said, less than half of whom could fight at one time because

they lacked weapons.

As a result of Khmer Rouge advances not only in Ratanakiri but in Stung Treng and

Mondolkiri, Pol Pot said, "at a 1969 council meeting of the enemy cabinet, the

traitor [Nhek] Tiou Long, as chief of staff [of the Lon Nol army], gave a pessimistic

report, admitting that the situation in Ratanakiri was serious."

In a 1977 speech, Pol Pot presented a glowing, almost mythical portrayal of the "people's

war" in the northeast during this period:

In its operations, the enemy mobilized their infantry, tanks, artillery, transport

vehicles and planes. However, in the northeast, as in other mountainous and jungle

regions, enemy planes, tanks, artillery and trucks lost their effectiveness. The

bombs and shells fired at random in the vast forests and mountains were lost in the

trees and rocks and never caused the slightest loss to our population. As to tanks

and trucks, our deep forests and our mountains were inaccessible to them. There remained

the infantry. Against them, we set traps, snares and hunting spears of all sorts

and we cut down trees to throw obstacles across all the paths and roads. If the enemy

tried to penetrate, he was at the mercy of our guerrilla units, which were the masters

of the terrain, in their own forests. This was people's war, based on guerrilla warfare.

In an earlier statement Pol Pot gave perhaps a more realistic assessment of the difficulties

faced by the Khmer Rouge from 1968-69: "In some areas where the enemy engaged

the people, we were cut off. We lacked personnel. We had no economy. We had no military

strength and nowhere to hide. No matter how big the forests were, we found no shelter.

No matter how good the people were, the enemy squeezed and manhandled them, and they

could do nothing. If people were not good, the enemy controlled and commanded them.

The enemy knew the forests. Wherever we came and went, he was aware of us. We had

a few weapons here and there, but we had no land, and no people under our control."

The US Invasion

Less than two months after Prince Sihanouk was deposed in a coup d'état in March

1970 by Gen Lon Nol, 30,000 US troops and 40,000 South Vietnamese troops invaded

Cambodia. In the northeast the incursion consisted of a series of attacks called

Binh Tay 1, 2, and 3 that began on May 5 when US and South Vietnamese forces were

airlifted into Ratanakiri.

Apart from heavy fire on U.S. helicopters at various points during the incursion

into the northeast, there was relatively little engagement with Communist forces.

Besieged by the bombing raids, 200 freshly-trained Khmer Rouge soldiers were bunkered

down at Khmer Rouge headquarters A-5 in Andong Meas.

Khmer Rouge cadre Ta But later recalled the intensity of the American invasion, which

forced the top leadership to make an emergency decision to evacuate A-5 to a safer

place farther west in Vonsai: "The Americans came closer and closer and there

was turmoil at the base. The [civilian] people ran to Vietnam. All the brothers such

as Van [Ieng Sary], Kham [Son Sen], and Phea [Ieng Sary's wife] were paralyzed. There

were 20 American helicopters, flying around our office, dropping bombs to burn the

forest. Brother Kham asked me what I thought. I replied that if we stayed quiet in

that place we would be destroyed by the enemy. I proposed we evacuate our forces

to Vonsai, where the situation might be better Ö Half an hour later Brother Van [Ieng

Sary] called a meeting with the office committee and some military cadre Ö to address

the immediate crisis. Ö The meeting agreed with me [to move the office] and assigned

me and two messengers to look into the situation and find the route to go to Vonsai."

The Khmer Rouge weren't the only ones thinking of evacuating. In May, U.S. military

advisors in Cambodia began to pressure Lon Nol to withdraw completely from the northeastern

provinces. A relatively large proportion of the national army had been stationed

in Ratanakiri since Col Sutsakhon's ill-fated offensive in November 1969, and the

Americans stressed the importance of rescuing a sizable number of troops stranded

in two remote garrisons at Labansiek and Bokeo in Ratanakiri. [The U.S. advisors

argued that since Cambodian government forces were too weak to hold the region, they

should be withdrawn and redeployed to defend Phnom Penh. Otherwise, once U.S. and

South Vietnamese troops had withdrawn, the two garrisons were in danger of being


Lon Nol eventually consented to the U.S. proposal to abandon the northeast. From

June 24-27, 1970, some 9,000 Cambodian government soldiers, their families and some

villagers were evacuated from Ratanakiri in Operation Binh Tay 4.

A Cambodian soldier who was fighting with the Lon Nol army recalled the final days

in Ratanakiri: "There were orders asking us to surrender our position in the

province but the soldiers did not know where to goÖThere was a big battle at the

Lumphat airport. I saw many dying along the road. The soldiers and crowds of people

were fleeing together along the highway going towards Bokeo. The people didn't know

where to go. They couldn't run into the jungle because there was shooting going on

between [rebel] soldiers in the jungle and government soldiers in the rice paddies.

I fled to Bokeo with many others, where a large U.S. airplane - big enough to drive

a car into - airlifted us to Vietnam and then to Phnom Penh."

Government forces had already been withdrawn from Mondolkiri, Kratie and Stung Treng.

By July 1, 1970, the entire northeast was effectively under Cambodian Communist control.

By this time, Pol Pot had already begun to spend less time in the northeast, leaving

Ieng Sary, Son Sen and Nuon Chea in charge of the Zone when he visited Hanoi in 1969-70.

In 1970, Pol Pot began to work out of secret bases in Kampong Thom and Kampong Cham

in order to focus on the military campaign against Phnom Penh.

It's clear that Pol Pot's early affinty with the northeast never faded despite rarely

having been seen there since 1970. According to his aides one of Pol Pot's final

wishes was to have a portion of his ashes spread in the northeast after his death.

Despite Pol Pot's rhetoric of the CPK's solidarity with the tribal minorities, ultimately

his policies and practices resulted in the deaths of thousands of people in the northeast

and the destruction of the highlanders' traditional way of life.

Ultimately Pol Pot's early "marriage of convenience" with the highlanders

in the northeast soured after the US bombing ended in 1973, when the Khmer Rouge

began to push for development of cooperatives, enforce communal eating, and prohibit

religious practices; punishing or executing those who did not follow the program.

In one of the largest uprisings against the Khmer Rouge, five thousand Brou and Kreung

villagers from Ratanakiri fled to Laos and Vietnam in early 1975, months before the

communists officially took power in Phnom Penh.

The Documentation Center of Cambodia provided funding support for research conducted

for this article.




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