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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The laughing butcher killed only 'yuon'

The laughing butcher killed only 'yuon'

T A MOK, the one-legged Khmer Rouge general known to the outside world as "the

butcher," smiles and chuckles warmly as he welcomes the first journalist he

has ever met.

 

During a three-hour interview over a luncheon of fish and Pringles potato chips

specially imported for the occasion, the man who overthrew Pol Pot speaks with a

peasant's directness and the ease of a man in total control.

His words, though, are sometimes as chilling as his laugh is warm. In an unprecedented

admission by a KR leader, he says "hundreds of thousands" died during the

revolutionary regime's 1975-78 rule, though he blames their deaths on Pol Pot.

As for the thousands of fellow KR that his forces killed during the purges of

1978, he shrugs. Their leader, he explains, had been discovered to be Vietnamese.

The new KR strongman can seem a study in contradictions. He has earned a fearsome

reputation as a military chief, but in person he comes across as grandfatherly. He

is clearly revered by many of the approximately 60,000 people living under his control

around Anlong Veng. It's and area almost completely isolated by mountains and dense,

land-mine-strewn jungles, but Mok's development projects seem to have turned it into

one of the more prosperous swaths of countryside in Cambodia.

But for Mok, 71, there's no contradiction. He's a peasant leader who defends what

he sees as the interests of his people. And like Pol Pot, that includes an obsession

with the perceived threat of Vietnamese domination. Mok would kill a Vietnamese intruder

with the nonchalance with which a farmer plucks a leech off a bare leg.

Mok believes that what his people need now is international support for their

guerrilla war against Premier Hun Sen. To that end, he has agreed to an unprecedented

interview. Sitting in a wooden pavilion freshly painted with revolutionary slogans,

he talks about supporting "liberal democracy." It's not clear if he really

understands the term, but since he ousted Pol Pot in June, cadres say he has allowed

new freedoms in the guerrilla zone.

The potential benefits of world acceptance are plainly evident form the hard-packed

dirt logging road that snakes down the Dongrek escarpment from Thailand to Anlong

Veng. Millions of dollars' worth of logs lie by the roadside, blocked from going

anywhere by an international agreement that bars the export of timber without central

government permission.

That permission isn't about to come: The central government is at war with the

KR. Evidence of past battles is everywhere: The few concrete buildings in Anlong

Veng are pockmarked by bullets and shrapnel, and government tanks disabled during

intense fighting two years ago sprawl in the roadway, political graffiti now adorning

their turrets.

Yet Anlong Veng is more than a battlefield. A two-day tour shows a wealth of agricultural

projects, making it one of the more developed rural areas in Cambodia. Sophisticated

dams, irrigating systems and other water projects are everywhere. Tractors and earth-moving

vehicles imported through Thailand work the land.

Water spills over new concrete dams into rivers where dozens of villagers, many

missing limbs from mines, haul in large fish with nets.

"The people here love grandfather because he cares very much about the well-being

of the poor," says Noun Nov, a cadre in his 40s. Like many others in Anlong

Veng, Nov has followed Mok since his mid-teens.

Indeed, Mok says it was his passion for rural development projects ("My hobby

is agriculture") that cost him his leg. He stepped on a mine when building a

road. "I was inspecting a road project. I was behind a bulldozer," he recalls,

shifting his artificial limb.

Is this the one place where the KR's ideology, which caused the death of perhaps

one million Cambodians in the 1970s, actually works? Hardly. Mok denies that he ever

embraced communism. "I was a monk," he says, and when he was just 16 he

was recruited into the resistance. "When I joined the Communist Party of Cambodia,

I did not know what communism was," he says with a burst of laugher. "They

told me the party is a patriotic one. That is why I joined the party. Later on I

found that the Communist Party was sucking the blood of the people.

"When we talk about economic life, I have no theoretical ideology,"

says Mok. " What is policy? When we talk about life we talk about land and water.

For the people, having these is having freedom and democracy."

Actually, KR cadres say Mok has introduced new freedoms in Anlong Veng in the

four months since he ousted Pol Pot. Previously, there were no schools, while now

scores of brightly dressed schoolchildren carrying notebooks can be seen casually

returning home from lessons. Listening to radio other than the clandestine guerrilla

station was forbidden; now they can listen freely to foreign broadcasts. "We

can even watch TV," one cadre exclaims proudly.

Ironically, there are signs that opening up has spawned social problems the puritanical

KR never faced before. Mok has responded in a characteristically KR way: "No

Gambling" has been added to revolutionary slogans such as "Defeat for the

Contemptible Yuon Enemy Aggressors" adorning the walls of Anlong Veng.

That's not the only new slogan. "Defeat for the Traitor Pol Pot Whose Hands

Are Stained With Blood," "Long Live the Emerging Democracy," and "Cambodians

Don't Kill Cambodians" are all freshly painted. Mok, who has basically spent

his entire life in the jungle, seems to think the appearance of the new slogans will

be enough to inspire Cambodians to rally in support of is movement.

"Reports reach me everyday saying that the new policy that 'Cambodians Don't

Kill Cambodians' is a magic slogan indeed," he says.

Of course, killing Cambodians was exactly what the KR did during their years when

Mok was at the very core of the leadership. Mok denies personal culpability for the

mass murder of those years - a denial that scholars say is patently untrue. But in

an unprecedented admission by a senior KR leader, he does admit that the regime committed

wide-scale abuses.

"It is clear that Pol Pot has committed crimes against humanity," he

says. "I don't agree with the American figure that millions died, but hundreds

of thousands, yes."

Mok's venom for Pol Pot seems genuine and personal. Yet his denials of personal

responsibility ring false, scholars say. For example, he claims no involvement in

the Tuol Sleng prison. "Pol Pot alone was in charge of the prison," he

insists.

Academics who are analyzing documents seized at Tuol Sleng, including 16,000 signed

"confessions" of people who were tortured and executed there, say there's

no doubt that Mok both ordered arrests and viewed " confessions". "His

fingerprints are all over the place. The proof is irrefutable," says Stephen

Heder, a professor at the University of London.

Mok's "butcher" nickname may have been earned in 1978. As commander

of the southwestern zone of Cambodia and fifth-ranking party leader, he was ordered

by Pol Pot to purge KR cadres from the eastern zone who were accused of conspiring

with Vietnam. Zone commander Sao Phim and thousands of his loyalists were killed.

Asked about this brutal purge, Mok makes clear that he believes anyone associated

with the Vietnamese is a fair target for murder. "I learned from documents produced

by Pol Pot that Sao Phim was Vietnamese," he says of the fourth-ranking party

leader.

Mok shrugs again in reference to two other leaders, Hu Num and Hu Yuon, who were

killed under torture. "Sao Phim I can understand. This man was Vietnamese,"

he says, but he then adds that the deaths of "Hu Nim and Hu Yuon I do not understand."

Mok's virulent anti-Vietnamese statements come as no surprise. In 1993, his troops

carried out numerous massacres of Vietnamese. "I have never taken a nap in my

life, in order to go faster than the Vietnamese, to beat the Vietnamese, to not allow

the Vietnamese to attack us," he says. He considers anyone working with Hun

Sen or the CPP to be Vietnamese and thus a legitimate target for murder.

That may explain why the straight-talking guerrilla chief seems to feel no guilt

for his role in the horrors of 1975-78. Asked about the deaths of those years, he

laughs and waves his hand dismissively. "If my hands were stained with the blood

of my compatriots, why would the people love me? Go ask them yourself."

Mok says that if he had the chance to live life differently, he would not have

joined with Pol Pot, whose "hands are soiled with blood".

Yet his rejection of the long-time KR supremo seems rooted not in the crimes of

the 1970s but those on June 1997, when Pol Pot ordered the killing of Son Sen and

attempted to murder Mok in a power struggle.

Since the 1993 UN-sponsored elections, the KR had been fracturing, and Pol Pot

had moved his base of operations, first from Trat in the southwest, to Pailin, then

to Phnom Chhat in the northwest, Mok says. "From Phnom Chhat he came to ask

me to stay here. Then....he tried to kill me and the people of Anlong Veng. How can

I trust him?"

After nearly three hours talking about the revolutionary movement that has been

his world for more than half a century, Mok says Pol Pot has been taken to a mountainside

location and is waiting to be interviewed. "Ask Pol Pot whether he recognizes

his faults. Ask him why he has assassinated his fellow Cambodians. After all that

he has done, what more does he want?" Mok says, scoffing at the man he served

for decades. He then asks the interviewer: "Can you still say that Pol Pot and

I are not estranged?"

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