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"
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
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
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
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.