In 2008, I spent five months in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province interviewing the surviving members of a group of families who walked in to forests in 1979. Taking to the jungles amid the collapse of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, they did not emerge for another 25 years.
The families all belonged to the indigenous communities native to Cambodia’s northeast, a population of eight distinct ethnicities often referred to collectively as highlanders. Thousands of highlanders sought shelter in northeast Cambodia’s rainforests amid the violence of the late 20th century. Survivors emerged slowly in the years following Vietnam’s 1979 invasion of Cambodia and subsequent occupation.
None are known to have lasted as long as this clan of 34 men, women and children I first met in 2004, weeks after they’d wandered into a small village in Laos’ Attapeu province and presented themselves to startled villagers as refugees from the war in Cambodia.
Their lack of knowledge about the outside world appeared absolute. They had never seen televisions or cars. They had no idea that the war they were running from had long ended. Supplied with shears to give themselves haircuts, the women snipped their hair into the chin-length bob the Maoist guerrillas required.
I was one of several foreign journalists to interview the families immediately upon their emergence from the forest. Our questions revolved around their survival: how they built shelter, how they built fire, the game they hunted, the tree bark scraps they used to clothe themselves. It was not until I returned four years later to learn the messier, darker, more complicated truths of their time in the forest—a story recounted in the book Ghosts in the Forest (Kindle Singles, 2015)—that I understood how misguided we’d been. Many distinct experiences set this group apart. Yet they were also part of a long tradition in the indigenous communities of using the forest as a place of sanctuary, resistance, and survival.
The earliest recorded examples of the indigenous people taking to the forest to avoid persecution dates from the 12th century, when ethnic Khmer from Cambodia’s lowlands raided highland communities for slaves. Enslaved indigenous peoples are depicted in the bas-relief sculptures at the Angkor Wat temple complex, sometimes shackled at the neck and marching in rows under the eye of a baton-wielding overseer. A Chinese diplomat’s writings from this time referred to those who remained free in the forest as “savages” who “refuse to submit to civilization.”
The slave trade continued for centuries after the decline of the Angkorian empire. When the Kingdom of Siam controlled parts of modern-day Cambodia and Laos, indigenous communities were expected to pay tribute in the form of one slave per village each year. This set off fierce inter-village wars, with tribes pillaging neighboring communities for able-bodied men they could send instead of their own. Men hid in the forest to escape these raids, and many highlander traditions still honor local plants and animals that protected their ancestors during this period.
The French explorer Henri Mouhot visited a northeastern Cambodian province (likely Kratie) in 1858 and spent three months with the Stieng, a community related most closely to the modern day Tampuon. He was struck by their deep connection to the natural world in which they lived. Mouhot wrote of a people “so strongly attached to their forests and mountains that to quit them seems almost like death . . . These people love the deep shade of the pathless woods, which they do not trouble themselves to cut down; but if they cling to their country, they do not to any particular locality, for if they meet with any inconvenience in their neighborhood, or if any of their family die of fever, they raise their camp, take their children in their baskets on their backs, and set off to make a settlement elsewhere.”
Inspired by the indigenous communities’ collective work ethic, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge leadership planned their revolution in the 1960s from the forests of Ratanakiri. They found willing recruits in the highlanders, who were fed up with the oppression of the Cambodian government and with the terrifying US bombing campaign that destroyed local villages in an attempt to disrupt the neighbouring Ho Chi Minh Trail. Terrified highlanders ran to the forests for cover at the telltale sound of the planes’ approach, and willingly signed on with those who vowed to fight the imperialist forces causing such devastation.
When the Khmer Rouge proved themselves to be tyrants of another form, highlanders once again were at the forefront of revolution, joining forces with Vietnam to oust them from power. In the chaos of the post-Khmer Rouge period, highlanders took to the forest en masse, sometimes fiercely battling government-sponsored rescue missions to coax them out of the forest and bring them back to their villages.
Throughout these fluctuations, highlanders used their unparalleled knowledge of the forests as a form of resistance. They sought shelter in the places outsiders feared to enter and in doing so protected their lives and identity.
Corinne Purtill is a US-based journalist and a former reporter for the Cambodia Daily newspaper in Phnom Penh.