banlung, Ratanakkiri province – Thun Sien has never visited Phnom Penh. His first language is not Khmer and his allegiance is firstly to his own Tampuon ethnic minority—not to Cambodia’s majority Khmer population.
But from the age of 13, he fought for the radically nationalistic Khmer Rouge, and continued fighting for almost two decades in remote jungle bases hundreds of kilometers from his mountain homeland here in Ratanakkiri.
Thousands of minority members were forced to give their youth to the Khmer Rouge revolution and, now in middle-age, have not reaped the promises of peacetime Cambodia, Thun Sien said.
“All the people had to join the Khmer Rouge army. Hundreds joined every month, from 8 years old upward,” said the sinewy 39-year-old who vividly remembers the communist cadre who came to his village to recruit hill tribe child soldiers.
“It was so hard to carry the gun in the forest with the heavy rains in July and August and when we had no food to eat.”
Thun Sien carried cooking pots for three months in 1977 before he was given an AK-47 rifle and marched in the direction of the Vietnamese border and told to attack. By 1978, Thun Sien had become a 14-year-old seasoned in jungle fighting.
When Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia on Christmas Day 1978—helping to topple the Khmer Rouge regime within weeks—Thun Sien retreated, a mangled wreck of injuries and one of the thousands of hill tribe fighters fleeing to bases near the Thai border.
Today, Thun Sien’s body is etched in scar tissue resembling a 20-year road map of Khmer Rouge battles with government forces.
“I fought against Khmer people because our leaders were crazy,” said Thun Sien, who only returned to Ratanakkiri in 1998 after the communist stronghold of Anlong Veng fell, and he was demobilized with the promise of rice and land for his family.
But only a fraction of the promised government assistance materialized, he said, adding that since reintegration the hill tribe returnees have struggled with too little land, food and a lack of health care facilities.
Under the Khmer Rouge there was at least enough food to eat, he said.
“On the border it was better. We were never concerned about food, we had big sacks of rice…. Then I just had to worry about fighting. We even had holidays,” he said. “Now we wait in our villages until we die.”
Khmer Rouge purges of Cambodia’s Vietnamese, Chinese and Cham communities are well documented. But the policy did not extend nearly so completely to Cambodia’s highland minorities.
Minorities such as the Tampuon, Jarai, Pnong and Bru were once sought out by the Khmer Rouge leadership as the idealized embodiment of their radical communist social theories, researchers say.
Lacking access to markets, money and commerce, the hill tribe cultures for the Khmer Rouge leadership embodied a form of “primitive communism.”
Uncorrupted by the debauched trappings of urban living, the mostly illiterate hill tribes were seen romantically by the movement’s leadership as blank pages on which the teachings of Marx, Mao and Stalin could be indelibly inscribed.
Khmer Rouge leaders Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and others based themselves in the forests of the northeast in 1963, forming jungle training camps under the border provinces’ thick jungle canopy.
Ratanakkiri was completely in the hands of communist Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge forces by 1970, and was later the location of Munti 32, a training camp for Khmer Rouge special forces.
It was with the hill tribe people, and not Khmers, who Pol Pot and Ieng Sary entrusted their personal security.
“I think [the highlanders] were thought of as special…Pol Pot and Ta Mok had minority bodyguards,” said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“They were considered the most honest. So for the Khmer Rouge who lived with paranoia, they were people they could control and trust. So they went first to that group,” Youk Chhang said.
“[They] might be naked, but they have never been colonized,” Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister and Brother Number 3 Ieng Sary said of the hill tribe people as quoted in David Chandler’s book, “The Tragedy of Cambodian History.”
Although initially elevated as a revolutionary ideal, the hill tribes were themselves to fall prey to Khmer Rouge suspicion by the early 1970s.
Religious ceremonies, distinctive ethnic clothing, ownership of cattle, elephants and personal property was banned and communal eating enforced.
As Khmer Rouge paranoia of “internal enemies” grew, the hill tribes were not exempt from the executions and purges unleashed on those who did not follow orders, had trained with Vietnamese communists or fell under suspicion because of ties with fellow tribes people whose villages were located in Vietnamese territory.
“The Khmer Rouge did not have the law but they had rules. If you broke the rules you were killed. There were no prisons in those days,” Thun Sien said. “If I order you to take the mud off the street, you do whatever to finish that work or you will be killed. That is communism.”
Other minority members with the Khmer Rouge also said they have received a hollow homecoming since returning to Ratanakkiri.
“My mother said if I was still alive I would have come home sooner,” said Khak Vanna, recounting his mother’s reaction when he arrived home in 1993—18 years after being forced to join a Khmer Rouge “volunteer” mobile brigade.
Khak Vanna was 16 years-old when he left home in 1975 and rose to the rank of Khmer Rouge colonel. But he wonders why life is harder now than the years spent fighting the government.
“In Anlong Veng we had rice, prahoc, salt. We were never short. Life here is so difficult,” Khak Vanna said.
Poverty is a common complaint for almost 40 percent of Cambodia’s 12 million population who live below the poverty line.
But for the former Khmer Rouge minority members it raises question about the dividends of Cambodia’s peace and the actual benefits of trading their swords for promised plowshares.
Sources working closely with hill tribe communities in Ratanakkiri said minority members were courted by both the Khmer Rouge administration and the Hanoi-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea that toppled Pol Pot in 1979.
Positions in local-government administration were available for minority members and continued with the State of Cambodia in the early 1990s.
But as the country liberalized in the years since the UN-administered elections in 1993 and Ratanakkiri has steadily become an increasingly lucrative tourist location, minority members have faded in positions of local government and decision making.
Planned highways in the province linking Cambodia with Laos and Vietnam, and a new airport in Banlung have begun a rush of property speculation and a influx of Vietnamese and Khmer investors eager to cash in on Ratanakkiri’s future tourist potential.
Investments, the sources said, will bring few benefits to the province’s dirt poor indigenous population who are thought of by some Cambodian officials as tourist attractions and not as struggling communities attempting to preserve their unique identity.
Comparing life now in Ratanakkiri with his Khmer Rouge years, Khak Vanna is blunt.
“We benefited [from the Khmer Rouge]. It was good for our lives, we had jobs to do,” he said. “It’s really different now…I may have to go and live in the lowlands.”