While Mondulkiri’s highland people were at first hailed as ‘base people’ by the Khmer Rouge, life under the Democratic Kampuchea regime soon became a nightmare that left their numbers decimated and their culture in tatters.
“The Khmer Rouge were dishonest people. They did good to us at the beginning and did bad to us at the end,” Keb Bunthy, a 58-year-old Phnong villager in Mondulkiri’s Koh Nhek district, said this week.
The largely untold story of the ethnic minorities of the Mondulkiri highlands under the Khmer Rouge is one of betrayal and tragedy. At first celebrated as “base people” by Pol Pot’s cadres, they were ultimately subjected to relocation, politically motivated killings and suppression of spiritual practices, which experts say shape highlander identity to this day.
Bunthy was a teenager when the Khmer Rouge took control of Peam Chimiet village in Nang Khylek commune – a community comprised mostly of Phnong, Jarai and Lao ethnic minority villagers nearly an hour’s drive from the district capital.
“They told people they came to liberate them from the Lon Nol regime,” he said. At the time, he joined the movement as a village security officer.
Net Savat, 75, another resident of the village, became a messenger for Angkar, or “the organisation,” the term the communist party used for itself. He recalled how, in 1966, some 20 villagers were arrested by Lon Nol’s police forces for suspected collaboration with the Khmer Rouge and Vietcong, which by that time had begun to establish a presence in the northeast.
“They divided and killed the villagers; they lost all their property and fled into the forest,” he said of the raid, which came days after Khmer Rouge fighters were seen passing through the village.
An ethnic Laotian, Savat said the fear of arrest and abuse by central authorities persuaded hundreds of families to join the Khmer Rouge guerrillas in the forest. “Pol Pot persuaded the villagers to unite with them to fight for freedom and human rights,” he said.
“They had traditional weapons like bows and bamboo spike pitfall traps to prevent Lon Nol soldiers from attacking the villagers,” he continued. “My father died in the forest from starvation.”
Researcher Sara Colm, who has spent years studying the highlanders of Cambodia and Vietnam, said the Khmer Rouge in essence “exploited” the upheaval and mounting discontent among highlanders caused not only by Lon Nol’s police forces brutalising them, but also by the years of US bombing and blows dealt by Sihanouk’s “Khmerisation” campaign.
Under Sihanouk’s policy, highlanders “were essentially prisoners of war,” according to Jonathan Padwe, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii researching the groups’ histories. “Sihanouk certainly wasn’t a golden era for the highlanders,” he said.
“The Khmer Rouge had a reputation for being honest – very much in contrast to the soldiers and police,” Colm said. Moreover, the communal nature of highlander society and the absence of money, banks and other trappings of capitalism played into an initial alliance.
“They started with the solidarity groups, which was very much the way the traditional highlanders were doing things,” Colm explained. “The Khmer Rouge idealised the minority people as practicing a form of ‘primitive’ communism.”
That all changed once the Khmer Rouge took control of the northeast and began implementing harsher policies. Starting in 1970, with the Lon Nol coup d’etat and, upon the recommendation of US advisers, the complete withdrawal of government forces from Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Stung Treng and Kratie, the Khmer Rouge broke their promise of freedom and began instituting forced collectivisation.
“We were forced to move near Koh Nhek [district] hall to do farming,” Bunthy recalled. Within about a year, villages were entirely depopulated and collectives of hundreds of villagers were set up in Koh Nhek town, where they were told to engage in lowland rice farming and canal digging.
“Anyone defying the order [to relocate] just a few times was punished or arrested,” he said. “People were living together like animals,” Bunthy continued. “Before, we did family-scale farming. Life was good, food was abundant, and each family did farming on one or two hectares.”
Bunthy worked in a collective of 300 villagers, mostly Phnong, he said.
“Families were separated for days if not weeks based on work schedules set by Angkar,” he explained.
According to Padwe, the Khmer Rouge relocations in Koh Nhek mean that even today there are fewer villages and more highly concentrated populations, while before, highlander society was structured by small communities spread out across the landscape.
“The modernisation of the ethnic minorities can be viewed as a shared project between the French, Sihanouk, the Khmer Rouge the Vietnamese and the governments that came later,” he said.
The Khmer Rouge left “cultural shockwaves,” Padwe said. “It’s contributed to the marginalisation of minority people, no question.”
These shockwaves, according to Padwe, have created more recent openings for exploitation, leading to the further demise of highlander identity, with the ensuing destruction of the forests to which it was tied.
Angkar told villagers the move to Koh Nhek was for “development” Bunthy, recalled. From 1975, the institution of collective dining halls caused further discontent, which was met with severe punishment.
“Villagers who did not go to work or follow orders disappeared,” he said. They were taken to the Phnom Kraol security centre in Koh Nhek, also known as K-17. “Hundreds were killed,” he said.
Those fortunate enough to not be killed after arrest were assigned to a worksite where conditions were harsh and workers closely watched.
The area is now a nondescript patch of land that sits just west of the national road by Koh Nhek market. The only structure that remains is a cement K-17 office riddled with bullet holes opposite the district police station.
O’Yeng village chief Choem Chan, 61, led reporters to a cornfield where a wooden detention facility that housed up to 30 prisoners at a time once stood.
In 1977, Savat said he was accused of being a Vietnamese spy and detained along with his wife and children at K-17 for a month before being sent to the worksite. “I had to move three cubic metres of earth per day,” he said.
As the Democratic Kampuchea government in Phnom Penh grew paranoid of internal enemies and trumped up the threat of an alleged Vietnamese invasion, policy began to follow rhetoric.
The party centre began to target ethnic Vietnamese – the crime for which the charge of genocide is currently being heard at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, along with alleged crimes associated with the purges of suspected Vietnamese collaborators.
Scholar Ben Kiernan writes in The Pol Pot Regime that Ieng Sary’s foreign ministry was staffed with northeastern minority cadres until they were purged in 1977 and 1978, ostensibly for alleged collusion with Vietnam. Records from the Documentation Center of Cambodia also show an uptick in confessions from northeastern minority cadres during these years.
Ethnic groups that straddled the Vietnam-Cambodia border in the northeast such as the Phnong and Jarai, meanwhile, saw border crossers killed, according to Colm.
Bunthy recalled how, from 1977, his village security unit had its guns taken away out of suspicion. “Phnong were accused of being spies of Vietnam,” he said, adding that those accused were taken to Phnom Kraol, where they might be killed, detained or sent to Phnom Penh.
Among those swept up in the arrests was Bunthy’s Jarai wife, Thin Put, 58, whose Laotian then-husband, Kham Phoun Kham, was a district-level cadre.
“He was accused of engaging with Vietnamese, and they took him away. Many people were killed with the same accusation,” Put said. She did not witness the arrest, she said. It was announced at a meeting, along with the arrest of her father-in-law Kham Phoun, a provincial -level cadre later killed on the same pretense. She was held at K-17 for a month before her release.
“The most killing happened in 1978, and it was also children and old people,” she said. “They just accuse but it’s not true, this is just a pretext to have them killed.”
Given the absence of records, the full story of what happened in the Northeast Zone remains shrouded in uncertainty. Only three witnesses have testified at the ECCC on the Phnom Kraol security centre, and research on the area has only been carried out by a handful of scholars. But the impact of the Khmer Rouge on highlander identity cannot be discounted.
“The Khmer Rouge started the process of deteriorating the culture . . . it contributed towards the erosion of traditional belief systems,” Colm said.
Bunthy said the Khmer Rouge decimated his people’s belief systems. “For Phnong in the forest, they had their own culture and spiritual practices like sacrificing buffaloes, but with the Khmer Rouge, no more, nothing,” he recalled.
“Ceremonial items were seized and put in one place. Everything became collective, not private. Nothing could be kept at home,” he said. Put recalled, “Ethnic villagers could not perform any rituals and were not allowed to wear traditional clothes. Wives were forced to cut their hair.”
And while Bunthy still prays each night at a shrine in his home adorned with a rosewood root, other signs of traditional Phnong culture are all but absent.
Kham Manith, a 51-year-old Jarai who was just five years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Peam Chimiet, said the customs of his people were a distant memory. He was never taught traditional practices by his elders.
“The old people died and the young generation don’t know how to do it,” he said.