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Survival in Cambodia’s Highlands: Living Through the Time of the Khmer Rouge 

Over the years as a photographer working in Cambodia, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the remaining indigenous groups here, but never looked into the effects of the war on culture. From little knowledge and limited resources on the topic, but with a National Geographic Explorer grant and the help of organisations such as the DC-Cam (Documentation Centre of Cambodia), Tuol Sleng Genociide Museum, and the work of scholars such as Sara Colm, I was able to begin uncovering the impacts of war on minority groups....

The Khmer Rouge and Region 105

Cambodia is now most well known for the ancient Angkor temple ruins, and one of the worst genocides of the 20th Century, committed by the Khmer Rouge who killed an estimated three million people. During this time, there was no discrimination as to who could be selected for execution, leaving everyone at risk–including the country’s 22 indigenous groups.

What remains of the Khmer Rouge Headquarters and prisons in Region 105, Mondulkiri

Over the years as a photographer working in Cambodia, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the remaining indigenous groups here, but never looked into the effects of the war on culture. From little knowledge and limited resources on the topic,  with the help of organisations such as the DC-Cam (Documentation Centre of Cambodia), Tuol Sleng Genociide Museum, and the work of scholars such as Sara Colm, I was able to begin uncovering the impacts of war on minority groups.

To this day, the majority of Cambodia’s indigenous minorities reside in the the highlands of northeast Cambodia, primarily inhabited by the Phnong, an indigenous ethnic group. During the war, the Khmer Rouge took control of the highlands between 1970-1979, transforming them into a Khmer Rouge stronghold known as Region 105.

Here many indigenous cadres were arrested, tortured, and executed. Many others were marched into the forest and executed,

The remote forests provided fertile grounds for the Khmer Rouge to gain support, and provided an early base area for the Khmer Rouge. The indigenous highlanders were detached from the the central government in Phnom Penh; In the 1960s, this allowed for the Khmer Rouge to gain support and recruit indigenous minorities in the region.

Over time, the war ravaged their ancestral lands with landmines and American bombs, and their forests became Khmer Rouge strongholds.

Due to the Khmer Rouge, many indigenous people fled the country to Vietnam, whilst many were relocated from their lands and forced into labour, finding themselves internally displaced. Those who remained, like everybody else, had no cultural identity; traditional animists, who interact with the spirits of nature, were unable to practice their beliefs under the oppression of the Khmer Rouge.  It was forbidden to retain any cultural identity. There was no  praying or traditional ceremonies, elephants that the Phnong worshiped were taken away or killed, and use of indigenous dialects was forbidden–forever changing indigenous cultural practices.

Many people were marched into the forest and executed, and their bodies dumped into the marshlands surrounding the area.

During this period, many indigenous people, including, indigenous Khmer Rouge cadres, were arrested, tortured, and executed.

For an estimated more than 100,000 indigenous people such as the Phnong, everyone was affected, whether they fled the U.S. bombing, were relocated to Khmer Rouge labour camps, or joined the Khmer Rouge as soldiers for survival. There was no escape. Their lives and culture would never be the same again.

Connecting to the Past

For my project as a National Geographic Explorer, investigating the indigenous history of minority groups and making connections from the present to the past was the most difficult part. Investigating the effects of the Khmer Rouge on minority groups, I searched through old Khmer Rouge prison records, looking for names of indigenous people that were arrested and later executed.

​Kasy’s case file from the Khmer Rouge after his arrest: courtesy of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

After compiling a list of names, we traveled around Mondulkiiri province, with the intentions of tracking down the surviving indigenous families. With no addresses, just a family name, and place of birth, we stopped off at every new village we could, speaking to elders and chiefs to find out if anyone recognised any names from the list. With each person we spoke to, leading us to another source, we found ourselves driving around on motorbikes for days on end.

As predicted, this was a slow and daunting process. With every new village and chief, my hopes of finding surviving descendants was fading. On what seemed like our final stop, and having no expectations, someone recognised one of the names as a family they knew a long time ago, living in another commune some hours away. It was hard to believe there was a chance that we had found a surviving family.

Comrade Kasy, an indigenous Khmer Rouge Chief, left behind a wife, and six children. All survived the Khmer Rouge.

1977: Death of Khmer Rouge Comrade Kasy

As relations between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnam deteriorated, a paranoia kicked in, sparking a wave of purges in the highlands. With many internal power struggles within the Khmer Rouge, paranoia grew internally, as soldiers tried to eliminate each other’s allies by accusing them of conspiring with the Vietnamese. This resulted in cadres being interrogated and executed.

Cadre Kasy, an ethnic Phnong, and high-ranking Khmer Rouge chief, was arrested and executed by the Khmer rouge in 1977, due to alleged connections with Vietnam.

Kasy was  district chief Keo Sema, and transferred to work in K-16 in 1977. He was asked to manage these districts as there were a lot of Phnong people located there.

Before joining the Khmer Rouge, he was highly educated and attended study sessions in Hanoi. Due to this, he was accused of maintaining these relationships, and of accepting ammunitions and supplies from the Viet Cong.

Kasy was detained at a prison at Phnom Kraol, Mondulkiri, where he was tortured, and executed. His body was reportedly dumped with others in a mass grave.

Surviving Descendants

Survivor of the Khmer Rouge, comrade Kasy’s wife, Buo, at her home in Mondulkiri

When Kasy was executed, he left behind his wife Buo Phnong (now approximately 70-years old) and six children, all of who survived the Khmer Rouge, despite families of alleged traitors also being targeted. Buo and Kasy were both indigenous Phnong, and had an arranged marriage. Despite this arrangement from their parents, they grew up together and were in love.

Khmer Rouge survivor Buo, with her granddaughter outside her home

During the time of the Khmer Rouge, Buo said, they had no freedom. In 1970 her family relocated to Koh Neak, and in 1973 Kasy became district governor of Keo Sema. After his arrest in 1977 they moved back to Koh Neak where her children lived separate in a child center. She recalls when they came to arrest her husband, she cried and was afraid. She wanted to go with him but they would not allow her. She recalled the Khmer Rouge taking him away by car, and her chasing the car.

Originally Kasy shared Khmer Rouge beliefs, but she wasn’t sure if later on he changed his mind and no longer supported the regime before his arrest. She was not sure of his political beliefs during this time. When she was with her husband, she said her life felt complete. But after he was taken, she lived in fear, scared her family would be taken away.

Afraid for her family, between 1977-1991, Buo lived with her parents in Koh Neak. When living with her parents, she was mainly surrounded by other Phnong people who also had been forced to abandon their traditional beliefs.

Buo and her eldest son, resting under their home in Mondulkiri

When people started returning to her home village after the war, she dreamed she would see her husband. When she saw he hadn’t returned, thats when she knew he was dead. Before then, she was not sure if her husband was dead or alive, and she kept hope. She never remarried, but bought a wedding ring to honor her husband.

Buo never remarried, but after the war she bought a wedding ring to honor her husband killed by the Khmer Rouge

Out of his six children, only his oldest son, Kasy Bunthoeun (now about 50) remembers their father, Kasy. He remembers going to work with his father, but was to young to understand what he was doing. During meetings he was not allowed in, and had to wait outside. He remembers his father did not talk much, but was always going to the farms to help people. The Khmer Rouge said he wasn’t a good governor and didn’t care about the people–but he was a good man, says Bunthoeun. He does not believe his father was helping people cross the border, as he was accused of doing.

With little memories of his father, he recalls riding elephants with his father to other districts to meet people.

​Kasy’s youngest son has no memory of his father, as he was a baby when kasy was arrested and killed. Despite never having met his father, and never seeing a photo, he is told he looks just like Kasy


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Meet the Author

Charlotte L. Pert
Photojournalist Charlotte L. Pert has a National Geographic Young Explorer grant  to tell the story of Changing Indigenous Culture in Cambodia- from War, to Now." The southeast Asian country is known in the West for its spectacular Angkor ruins -- and for the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century. Cambodia is less known for its 22 indigenous groups, which to this day still remain largely undocumented. Indigenous minorities were particularly targeted by the Khmer Rouge. Having lost their cultural identities 40 years ago, these communities are now trying to recover and survive in their changed world, whilst also overcoming modern-day issues. In a country where the entire nation was traumatised, how are these minorities surviving? Charley Pert plans to photograph and document these remaining groups, and present what has been recovered, and lost, in the wake of the genocide. She is attempting to source old colonial photographs, and compile stories from elders who were about at the time, or who remember the stories of their parents who lived through colonialism. In this way she hopes to build an image of what has been lost, as well as what has been preserved. Looking into the changes that have occurred over time,  from pre-war to modern day factors (like access to electricity and communications) that are influencing the youth, she hopes to also showcase how the indigenous way of life is being adapted by the next generation. As these indigenous cultures are changing so rapidly, it is important to capture what is left and look into how they are retaining their identities. Charley's photography has been published by The Guardian, Daily Beast, and Phnom Penh Post.