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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cooking for the butcher

Cooking for the butcher


Ta Mok's mouth could be cruel, says Van Ra, but he was not brutal.


an Ra never thought that Ta Mok was a brutal man. Sure, the former military leader

of the Khmer Rouge was a tough guy and could be ill-tempered. He would talk straight

and loudly if he was unhappy with something.

But for the almost three decades that the 40-year-old Van Ra has known Ta Mok, she

always admired him. And though she doesn't seem comfortable talking about it, she

spurns the many stories of the KR leader's notorious brutality which has left him

dubbed by journalists as 'the Butcher'.

"His mouth could be very cruel. But I never saw him kill anybody," says

Van Ra.

"He was much better than the other leaders - Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea.

They controlled the finances, but Ta Mok was a real compatriot."

For ten years, from 1983 to 1993, Van Ra had plenty of opportunity to compare the

KR top brass. During that period she worked as Ta Mok's personal cook in his household

near the Thai border. Apart from cooking three meals a day for her boss, Van Ra occasionally

also had to cater for other KR leaders when they came to visit.

"Ta Mok preferred fish and dried food. He liked prahok and sweet and sour dishes.

For breakfast I always cooked him rice porridge with fish," she says.

"But especially after he lost his leg in the accident, other leaders would come

and visit him every two or three months. Then I had to prepare a lot of special dishes,

because they all liked different food. Pol Pot liked meat from wild animals such

as deer and wild boar, and Ieng Sary wanted Chinese food.

"Sometimes they stayed for three days and it gave me a lot of work. I was always

a little nervous that something would go wrong."

Van Ra remembers how other KR leaders always had their bodyguards taste the food

they were served before eating it, probably for fear of being poisoned. But Ta Mok

apparently trusted her so much that she was the only one who tested his meals beforehand.

In 1993, Van Ra and her sister wanted to move to Pailin. They had acquired a piece

of land where they wanted to set up a restaurant and try to make some money.

This did not go down well at all with the strict, hard-line communist Ta Mok.

"He got very upset and angry with me. He tried to persuade me not to go, but

in the end he let me leave anyway."

And Ta Mok didn't turn his back completely on his former cook. Van Ra met him a few

times during the subsequent years and he always remembered her.

The last time she saw Mok was in 1996 when he and other KR top officials came to

Pailin, shortly before the whole town defected to the government. On that occasion

she was asked to cook some of her special dishes for the delegation.

But Van Ra's acquaintance with the notorious KR leader goes back to her childhood

days in Takeo Province. At the time, her family who were farmers lived only a few

houses away from Ta Mok in Tram Kak district.

When she was 12 years old, Ta Mok came to her house and asked her to join a youth

education center that he had set up.

"All the children liked Ta Mok. He called to us and said 'come with me, let's

go and make a revolution'. It sounded so exciting," she recalls.

According to Van Ra there were almost 500 children living in the center that Ta Mok

visited regularly. She, herself, chose to study traditional herbal medicine.

During the KR regime, she worked in hospitals in both Takeo and Phnom Penh. At that

time, she usually met Ta Mok two or three times a month.

When the Vietnamese forces invaded in 1979, Van Ra fled into the forests of Kampot.

From there she slowly made her way up to Ta Mok's camp in the Siem Reap/Preah Vihear


"Ta Mok is a nice man. I feel pity for him because his life has sometimes been

very sad. In the 1960s his wife was jailed. She gave birth to a baby in the prison,

but the child died."

Van Ra now runs a guest house near the market in central Pailin. Last year, when

she heard that Ta Mok had been arrested, she immediately traveled to Phnom Penh to

try to find him. She asked about him at several different prisons, but without any


"Now, I know where he is, but they won't let me see him. I really want to meet

him and bring some food for him. I worry about his security. He could be assassinated,

because he is now a very important man for the country."

Van Ra is slightly concerned about an upcoming trial against Ta Mok and other KR


"I want to request to the UN to please ensure that this trial will provide real

justice. The trial should not only be for Ta Mok but also for the other leaders.

Ta Mok was not a top leader, he only followed orders," she says.

"They should also remember that Ta Mok was a good man who has built many schools,

hospitals and dams. One time, when I asked him why he was doing all this he answered

that he wanted to leave a good legacy for the people.

"But still, we have to show the young people that if you do something wrong,

you will be punished."



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