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
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
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
"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
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
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?"