HE'S known to the outside world as 'The Butcher', a remorseless killer most famous
for the pogroms which cut a bloody swathe through the Pol Pot regime's own ranks.
But what was Ta Mok's position in the Democratic Kampuchea rule of 1975-79, how much
influence did he have on its policies, and what could he be charged with in a hypothetical
As with much of the DK leadership, "smoking gun" evidence against him -
such as personally- signed execution orders - has proven elusive.
The closest that the Documentation Center, the Cambodian genocide research institute,
has so far found is several documents among hundreds of thousands of pages of Santibal
(DK secret police) records.
The documents were confessions of inmates at the S-21 (Tuol Sleng) prison in Phnom
Penh, sent to Mok in his role as Southwest Zone secretary by prison chief Deuch,
who coincidentally came from the Southwest himself.
"Yes, I agree this confession is related to army and central medical team. [Signed]
Southwest Zone, Mok" is written on one confession. Its author was later executed,
but there is no evidence on the document that Mok ordered the killing.
Such documents show that Mok was aware of S-21, where thousands of people were tortured
and earmarked for execution, according to Documentation Center director Youk Chhang.
Historian Steve Heder agrees that such evidence "is proof only that [Mok] knew
that people were detained and that they wrote 'confessions', not that they were killed".
But he cites other evidence that Mok was "structurally implicated" in the
DK security apparatus which included S-21.
National responsibility for policy on purges and executions was held by the Military/Security
Commission of the DK Central Committee, according to Heder. Commission members, as
of 1976, were Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Sao Pheum, Ta Mok and Son Sen. (Particular authority
regarding arrests and executions of senior cadre was given to the Office of the Central
Committee, headed from 1977 by Khieu Samphan.)
In March 1976, authority to decide on executions around the country was granted to
each DK zone's ruling committee. Mok, as Southwest Zone secretary, can be held responsible
for killings in his zone, Heder says.
The Southwest Zone boasted at least four prisons - including Krang Ta Chan, in Ta
Mok's birthplace of Tram Kak, established by the guerrillas before the regime took
power - where historian Henri Locard has documented torture and executions.
According to a Documentation Center survey, at least 258 mass graves in nine sites
still exist in the former zone. Based on data from scholars, eyewitnesses and the
former State of Cambodia government, the Documentation Center estimates the number
of executed victims at 15,879.
Although each zone had its own security cadre, Heder argues that "Zone Secretaries
have to bear responsibility for what happened under their authority, just as [the
national] Military/Security Commission members have to take responsibility for what
happened at S-21".
Heder also notes that war crimes (such as the intentional targeting of civilians)
were committed by Mok's Southwest troops during raids into Vietnam.
Fellow historian Ben Kiernan, meanwhile, cites evidence of Mok's support for forcible
relocation - he allegedly ordered the evacuation of Oudong after it was captured
in 1974, and supported the subsequent emptying of Phnom Penh - and his complicity
in several massacres including one of Hanoi-trained Cambodians.
As for the DK's agriculture, economic and social programs, that claimed countless
lives through starvation and disease, Heder says Mok may not have been involved in
deciding such polices. But, like all Zone secretaries, he was responsible for implementing
The ranking within the top hierarchy of the DK remains ambiguous, according to Heder,
but the best available evidence puts Mok at No.4 - after Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Eastern
Zone secretary Sao Pheum (or Phim) - in 1976.
Mok rose to No.3 after Sao Pheum was purged two years later. ("Sao Pheum I can
understand - this man was Vietnamese," Mok recently said of the killing, to
interviewer Nate Thayer.)
Sao Pheum was one of many victims of purges of suspected dissenters and traitors
within DK ranks around Cambodia in the latter stages of the regime. Southwest troops
were used in such sweeps, which earned Mok the moniker "The Butcher" -
apparently bestowed on him much later by foreign journalists, and not generally used
Heder has cited "the extraordinary and increasingly crucial role played by...Mok
and many of his subordinates in purging the Communist Party right through to the
beginning of 1979". Furthermore, Mok reportedly took over as secretary of some
purged zones, Heder says. If true, he bears direct responsibility for subsequent
"clean-up" sweeps of the zones.
But, as with much of what happened under the Byzantine regime, nothing is entirely
clearcut. Heder, in a critique of Ben Kiernan's The Pol Pot Regime, urges a degree
of caution in depicting the Southwest - the so-called "heartland of Pol Potism"
- as being in full control of the killings. He notes many senior Southwest cadre
involved in purges were later themselves arrested and executed. Others accused of
treason, including relatives of Mok such as his son-in-law Muth, were saved only
by the Vietnamese invasion.
As the regime turned on itself in paranoid blood-letting, even those who had dutifully
served the cause of murder were not immune. Whether that might have ultimately included
Mok himself is unclear.
Regardless, Heder concludes that the total evidence shows "there is a prima
facie case against Mok for primary culpability in connection with crimes of genocide,
crimes against humanity and war crimes".
So as Mok sits in Anlong Veng today, with Pol Pot purportedly purged and the Khmer
Rouge supposedly rehabilitated, is he any better or worse than, for instance, Ieng
Sary, who has won a Royal amnesty?
Heder draws a distinction in the degree of culpability of Sary and Mok. Sary (whom
he ranks at No.6 in the DK leadership) defended the regime's actions in his role
as Foreign Minister and received some S-21 confessions. But unlike Mok, he had neither
national security responsibilities nor control of a zone.
"To put it slightly differently, even if Sary knew or figured out what was really
happening to cadre who 'disappeared' and vigorously defended in vague but damning
terms what the regime was doing (at the UN, in conversations with diplomats, etc),
Mok's formal role unavoidably suggests a much higher level of involvement,"
Heder told the Post by email. "Perhaps the distinction can be understood as
one between a principal author and implementer of policies of arrest and execution
versus a willing (if sometimes worried) accomplice."
Mok's crimes are by no means limited to the DK regime. More recently, his troops
were linked to numerous massacres of Vietnamese residents in Cambodia in 1993.