The Kola of Cambodia

By Simon Lewis & Phorn Bopha 9 January 2015

PAILIN PROVINCE, Cambodia — “When I was growing up, everyone around here was Kola,” said Chhoeum Davy, sitting beneath the Buddhist pagoda of Wat Phnom Yat.

The golden tower is in the style of those found all over Myanmar, but it sits atop a hill overlooking Pailin in northwest Cambodia. It is almost all that’s left here of the Kola, the group of migrants from Myanmar who built it.

The precise origins of the people and their name, sometimes spelt Kula, are unclear. They are thought to have journeyed here in caravans from somewhere in Shan State and came to control the local gem-mining industry. Cambodian accounts suggest they first arrived in 1876, while the area was part of Siam.

“They were very rich. They had bowls full of gold and gems,” said Ms. Davy, a 59-year-old Khmer woman who looks after the pagoda. Kola middlemen would carry a bell to ring as they were coming around the villages, telling gem miners to bring out their wares, she recalled.

At Wat Phnom Yat, statues depict Kola men wearing a garment like a longyi, hinting at the group’s ancestral homeland.

“The men dressed like Khmer men, but they wore sarongs. The women had a traditional double-breasted blouse, with platinum or gems for buttons, and beautifully embroidered sleeves,” said Ms. Davy. “They used umbrellas, chewed betel nut and kept their hair very long.”

Among the painted names identifying those who have donated to the pagoda and a nearby monastery are Myanmar names, since some have come to see Wat Phnom Yat as a site of pilgrimage. Brand-new gold plating and gold leaf for the pagoda were donated by people from Myanmar last year, Ms. Davy said.

Around the pagoda are gruesome scenes from Buddhist purgatory, a tall standing Buddha, and—attracting the most Cambodian visitors—statues of a Kola woman, Yeay Yat, after whom the hill and the pagoda are named.

Her story is recorded in a Khmer-language collection of folk tales compiled by the country’s Institut Bouddhique. It recounts that Grandmother and Grandfather Yat—Yeay Yat and Ta Yat—were gemstone traders in Pailin.

Due to the lucrative gems business in the area, the story goes, many locals had firearms to protect their property. But they also used the guns to hunt animals in the then-thick forests surrounding the town of Pailin—a practice that scared local spirits.

One day, the most powerful spirit in the area visited Yeay Yat and Ta Yat and offered them a bargain: If they got the people to stop hunting, the spirit would see to it that the people would find more gemstones. The hunting ceased and the people grew richer, repaying the spirit by donating generously to build Wat Phnom Yat and performing a “peacock dance” atop the hill for the spirit.

Local people now believe that Yeay Yat’s spirit can grant wishes in return for offerings. The spirit of Yeay Yat is known to possess people in Pailin from time to time, said Ms. Davy, who sells laminated images of the Kola matriarch at the pagoda. “Whenever her spirit enters somebody’s body, they speak in Kola [language],” she said.

Like most of the precious gemstones and forests that once enriched this area, the Kola fell victim to the Khmer Rouge, the ultra-Maoist group that ravaged Cambodia from 1975-79. After fleeing Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge retreated to Pailin and other redoubts near the Thai border to wage an insurgency that lasted through to the late 1990s, largely funded by sales of gems and timber to Thai merchants.

While in power, the Khmer Rouge abolished money and confiscated all property for the state, forcing the Cambodian people into collective work camps and especially victimizing those who were considered wealthy or educated. More than 1.7 million people are thought to have died in just over three years before a Vietnamese invasion ousted the regime.

But among the reams of literature about the country’s killing fields, little mention is given to the fate of the Kola. “They tried to run away to Thailand, but I don’t think many made it,” said Ms. Davy.

The pre-civil war population of Kola in Pailin would have been tens of thousands, she said, but it now stands at just one, an elderly woman widely known as Yeay Kola. The frail 77-year-old, whose real name is Sein Tin, visits the pagoda most days. “Whatever you ask from Yeay Yat, you will get it. She was a woman who took care of the people,” Sein Tin told The Irrawaddy at her home, only meters from Wat Phnom Yat.

“All were Kola around here,” Sein Tin said sadly, indicating the hilly surrounds and the monastery opposite, built in the Myanmar style using wood with metal roofing. “The Khmer Rouge kicked all the Kola out. … They mistreated them. They had to exchange all their property for rice, so they were poor. Then, if they stole, they were killed.”

Sein Tin fled the area and hid in the nearby town of Battambang, returning later to find that all the Kola had gone. “I survived only by luck. But I am the only one left here,” she said.

Local officials in Pailin are almost all former Khmer Rouge soldiers, since Pailin was only carved out as an administrative area, for the benefit of former cadres, in 1996 after a massive defection that presaged the group’s demise.

Sao Sarat, the deputy governor of the province and a former Khmer Rouge fighter, denied that any Kola had been killed by the communist army.

“The war came and they ran away,” said Mr. Sarat, insisting that the entire former population of the area was safely living in Thailand. “Some of them have even come back to visit.”

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Phnom Penh is now trying two former regime leaders for crimes that include genocide against the Muslim Cham and the Vietnamese minority in Cambodia. Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that it did not appear the Kola were specifically targeted by the Khmer Rouge, as were the Cham and the Vietnamese.

As well as settling across the border in Thailand, he said, some were known to have migrated to Phnom Penh and to the United States. However, others likely died from starvation, overwork or during the purges that wracked Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge era.

“They [Kola] look like Khmers, so many probably died along with everyone else,” Mr. Chhang said.

This story first appeared in the January 2015 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.