An increasingly belligerent and paranoid leader with grandiose military schemes
- and a tendency for tantrums about mangos, pangolin skins and tin roofs - helped
to fuel the mass desertions from Anlong Veng.
Disgruntlement at the repression of Ta Mok, and a desire to make cash rather than
war, appear to be behind the decision of thousands of people to flee the Khmer Rouge
Defectors say that, in recent months, Mok cracked down fiercely on any type of private
enterprise or self-initiative, and saw enemies everywhere.
"There were some school children in Anlong Veng who climbed a mango tree to
pick mangos on their way to school," recounted Pich Chheang, the former Pol
Pot regime ambassador to China. "Ta Mok saw them while he was driving his car
and stopped the car and cursed the children, saying that they were traitors.
"If people ignored the rules, they were charged with being traitors. Even people
who sold Cambodian cakes or noodles to buy things for their wives or children, they
were traitors. So when all the people are traitors, then only Ta Mok is a nationalist
- how can Ta Mok alone lift the earth up?" Chheang asked, using a Khmer idiom.
"The people of Anlong Veng lived like they were in a prison - a prison without
Underlying the dissent within Anlong Veng, it seems, is that at least some people
believed Mok when he told them that last June's ouster of Pol Pot would improve their
lives; it didn't.
"I thought that after Pol Pot, life would get better. It just got worse,"
said one KR soldier. "Ta Mok would not allow anyone to do any trading, even
selling bananas. Ta Mok said that if you trade with [civilians in government areas],
you allow the enemy to come into our side."
As with the KR breakaway in Pailin and Malai two years ago, many soldiers and families
who abandoned Anlong Veng said they are sick of being poor and at war, and that they
want one freedom - to be able to trade and make money - more than any other.
"I want the freedom to go anywhere to do business, without asking permission,"
said Lom, who has spent 20 of his 35 years of age in the KR, as he rested his crude
wooden leg on a rusty bicycle.
Ta Mok, apparently fearing the seeds of capitalism growing in his territory, attempted
to crush them; instead he merely watered the buds of dissent. "The fruit became
ripe and ready to fall," is a common analogy used by top defectors, changed
by Pich Chheang to: "Ta Mok became ripe and ready to fall."
"He told us to be poor and to give up everything," said the soft-spoken
Chheang, aged 60, sitting under a plastic tarpaulin at the O'Bai Tap refugee camp.
"The soldiers' families, they didn't even have 100 [Thai] baht in their pockets.
Some soldiers, they would [sell something] for 100 or 200 baht and then buy a sarong,
or a plastic bag of MSG, or a pair of sandals for their children or wives - when
they took them back to Anlong Veng, Mok would call them traitors."
A by-now legendary story is that of the tin roofs: a few months ago, Mok banned the
use of tin in houses in Anlong Veng, ordering some of his commanders to remove their
"He said tin roofs are for rich men. He wanted the commanders and the soldiers
to be poor, to make them angry at the government and fight more strongly," said
Raem, a Div 980 political cadre.
Another tale, told by Ke Pauk, the defectors' official leader, is of the pangolin
skins. After heavy rains in February destroyed some rice crops, people looked for
other ways to make money to buy rice; many people took to hunting pangolins to sell
their skins to people on the government, or Thai, side.
Mok was furious. "He said Hun Sen and Teng Boonma were giving people money to
buy all the animals from Anlong Veng. Ta Mok put an old man in prison for this, and
other people. Some of them were handicapped," Pauk recounted.
Other stories abound: of Ta Mok burning an intercepted case of cigarettes on a bonfire,
urging people to raise chickens and pigs but refusing to allow them to sell them
to government or Thai civilians, and restricting when and how rice could be grown.
While his villagers resented Mok's strictness, more dangerous for him was the disgruntlement
brewing among his soldiers and commanders. He not only wanted them poor and angry,
but sent them on dangerous, futile missions, according to Pich Chheang, who was a
Anlong Veng regional deputy commander until Pol Pot's ouster last year.
A few months, ago "Mok ordered them to capture Siem Reap town - how can we do
that? We don't have enough forces," said Chheang, shaking his head in disbelief.
One of the final straws was Mok's demands, a week or two before the breakaway occurred,
for a simultaneous three-pronged offensive.
Arbitrarily transferring troops from positions in the north and northwest, he ordered
them to: cut National Route 5 between Poipet and Sisophon in Banteay Meanchey province;
cut Rt 4 to Kampong Som near the Pich Nil mountain; and blow up the railway near
Kampong Chhnang before moving on to attack the provincial town.
Mok didn't listen when commanders told him they would be outnumbered - "The
water is up to our noses," one reportedly said. Most of those commanders and
their soldiers were not aware of the impending revolt against Mok at the time, Chheang
said. They quickly joined it once it happened.