Expeditions, Navigation, Guided Walks and Trekking

Trekking with the Khmer Rouge – Won Sons story

In my last blog I wrote about my trek in Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. We had a couple of local guides with us, both of whom had been in the Cambodian Army. Mr Banana, (a mistranslation of his tribal name – Pril), wore his uniform with pride. Won Son had his injuries as his souvenir of his wars.

Won Son sat beside the fire after breakfast on our last day of trek, just after he told us his story.

Won Son sat beside the fire where he told us his story.

On our last evening in the jungle, I was sitting beside the campfire talking to Won Son, with Bun-Ni our guide leader translating. As dusk drew in, Won Son shared his amazing story. It started with an innocent question about his time in the army and how he got injured. He answered with a difficult and complicated story of his role in the recent history of Cambodia. Won Son came from the Phnom Phen, Cambodia’s capital city, to this remote province when he joined the army. So he was a different ethnic group from the people here in the jungle,  Bun-Ni made the joke as he explained that this was why he was not as tiny as Mr Banana and also smiled more! It was true, Won Son did smile more and was friendly and happy to talk, only slowed down by the need for Bun-Ni to translate for us.

Khmer Rouge soldiers were usually made up of teenage peasants

Khmer Rouge soldiers were usually made up of teenage peasants

At 17, Won Son took up the King of Cambodia’s (Sihanouk), request for young men to join the army to fight the Vietnamese (and Khmer Rouge) in the jungle up in the north east of Cambodia, where the invasion was taking place. Won Son said that things weren’t so good at home and a lot of his friends were joining up, so he joined up. After a couple of years of the army trying to keep the communists down there was coup, This was 1970, and the Kings jungle army was taken over by one of the Generals and the King fled into exile in China. Won Son said although they joined to support the King they now couldn’t leave or they would be shot by the Khmer Rouge. So after starting fighting for the King against the North Vietnam army and against the Khmer Rouge they were over-run and taken into them this rebel army. The government then officially allowed the North Vietnamese army and Viet Cong to come through their jungle as part of the Ho Chi Min trail, although this had been going on for years. Won Son explained he and the Khmer Rouge spent a lot of time guarding their villages against the North Vietnamese. Then the government changed its mind and let the American bomb the trail and surrounding jungle. The US started carpet bombing lots of the region, not just the trail but the villages and towns. Won Son explained that the US bombs killed many more Cambodians than Vietnamese. Won Son was shot at by American helicopters, ending up with a bullet in his right leg. Then he had his fingers of his left hand blown off by a shell that hit his tank. In these battles he also injured his right leg, although I didn’t catch the circumstances.


Pol Pot

At the end of the Vietnam war in 1976, the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia, driving out the US supported government army. Won Son was part of the Khmer Rouge then but stayed up in the Ratanakiri province. He told us he became close to the Khmer Rouge leaders, even meeting Pol Pot’s wife when she visited Banlung. She came to the provincial capital and was carried on a sedan chair through the jungle. Won Son was a trusted soldier, and was one of carrying group.  He didn’t mention the tough times under Pol Pot, but we did know from our visits to the museums in Phnom Penh that Pol Pot distrusted his Army in this region and sent many of them to the killing fields, particularly if they had contact with the Vietnamese. Won Son was at great risk then so he told us he joined the Vietnamese army and lived in Vietnam for a while. He did this to avoid the treatment he and his group got from Khmer Rouge and so they absconded avoiding the deathly purges. He lived in Vietnam for a while, becoming close to their government and he said he was part of the group that persuaded the Vietnamese to invade Cambodia.

Killing Fields

So he came back with the Vietnamese army as they invaded Cambodia (in 1979) but the despicable Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot escaped by retreating back to the jungle in the north of Cambodia. I recalled from the news at the time that the Khmer Rouge occupied the jungles in the NW close to Thailand around Battembang, and this was an area that Won Son particularly mentioned, but they also remained across all of the jungle area in Ratanikiri where we were. He was still upset by the treatment the Khmer Rouge continued to mete out; frequent road blocks and holds ups were a common sight along the roads in the area. So the north was sealed off from the rest of Cambodia for many years. (If you didn’t know, the Khmer Rouge were being supported by the CIA then, as they were still fighting the Vietnamese.) By this time in Won Sons story it was getting difficult to work out whose side he was on and which army he was in.

Earlier in our trek we had asked the guides if they had ever seen snow. Unlike the others, Won Son excitedly said that he had, he had been to Russia in the winter! That was difficult to credit, but later, by that river bank as he shared his story, he told us how that happened. After being freed from the Khmer Rouge when they finally left that province in the 1980’s he became a local government official. The Cambodian government started to train up its officials and he was invited to Russia education. He spend a couple of weeks in Moscow during a winter.

After that he became disillusioned with working for the corrupt government. Bon-Ni explained that government corruption still exists and their employees; teachers, nurses, road workers etc., didn’t get most of their wages. At best they got paid only about $75 a month, not enough to live on.

Won Son and his lovely wife, outside their small farm in Banlung. She is holding the puppy a present from his trek with us.

Won Son and his lovely wife, outside their small farm in Banlung. She is holding the puppy a present from his jungle trek with us.

Won Son became a small farmer and fisherman with a smallholding just outside Banlung. According to Bun-Ni he was a popular person around there for standing up the government when he did and surviving the corruption.

After thanking Won Son for sharing his story, I dashed off to my hammock to capture it all in my journal to record all the twists and turns. This complex story took some putting together, late into the night.

Checking out later what was going on I found that the national government are still giving concessions over tribal land to business men from the capital and china. Land “sales” involve bribes to local officials along with coercion and threats to the indigenous people. At home the other night I was also catching up the BBC programme with Sue Perkins traveling up the Mekong. She visited the area and gave the same story of corruption still prevalent.

Won Sons story, a survivor’s tale, had covered much of the terrible history of Cambodia in the 1970 and 1980’s. I had to piece some of it together from the history section in our Lonely Planet and from Bun-Ni knowledge of his country’s history. Unlike many of the tales I hear from people we have as guides and porters, Won Son’s entire story checks out, including of course, the reason for his lack of fingers on his left hand.

Some facts checked with Cambodian documentation centre         and its worth a look at some latest stuff on the BBC about the unknown war with Vietnam

One comment on “Trekking with the Khmer Rouge – Won Sons story

  1. Pingback: Trekking with the Khmer Rouge – Won Sons story | My Cardboard Castle

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This entry was posted on December 3, 2014 by in Blog, Expeditions and tagged , , , .
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