1997 was the year that the purges extended, publicly, to Pol Pot. Ta Mok became
the face of a Khmer Rouge which now blames Pol Pot for all the sins of the past.
In the first of a two-part series on Ta Mok, Jason Barber and Chea Sotheacheath trace
the early days of a veteran guerrilla known for murder and mirth.
Ta Mok was playing hide-and-seek. On a moonlit evening, his brother, sister and new
bride excitedly trampled through the family's rice fields, looking for an elusive
Mok. "We looked for him everywhere," recalls his younger sister Poun, "but
we couldn't find him."
Finally, they realized one place they hadn't looked - a mound of straw left over
from that day's harvesting. "We got a hoe and started to poke through the straw.
We hit him on the head!" his sister recounts, giggling. "He cried out and
came out of the pile. He was angry, but not really angry - he was laughing as well."
This was back in the mid-1940s; before the war, before the Khmer Rouge, before people
didn't laugh about hoes to the head. The young Mok, fresh out of the monkhood and
just married to one of his cousins, was having fun in his sleepy home village in
Tram Kak district of Takeo province.
More than 20 years later, but not so far away from his birthplace, Mok was ensconced
in a jungle guerrilla camp. It was the time of Pchum Ben, the annual ceremony for
the dead, and Harm Pan, a teenage messenger in Mok's Khmer Rouge unit, was hungry.
Sneaking into the camp's radio post, Pan spied some traditional nom ansom cakes.
"I took one and peeled back the skin," he recalls, going through the motions
with his hands, "and began to eat it. I didn't know Ta Mok was in the office.
He saw me and chased me, waving his stick."
Asked whether Mok caught him, Pan laughs. "I ran fast, very fast. When you see
Mok chasing you with his stick, you run fast." Wasn't he worried that Mok would
punish him later? Pan chuckles again. "No - as he was running, I could hear
Ta ("Grandfather") Mok may be a mass murderer, but he's also something
of a joker. A man whose humor and generosity is as legendary, to some at least, as
his blood-stained hands; a man who has commanded loyalty and obedience by inspiring
both great fear - "I couldn't look him in the face" is a common comment
about him from former guerrillas - and great respect.
The myths about Ta Mok are many, but the image of the laughing killer may well be
"A gentle brother"
The story begins in the Year of the Tiger (most likely 1926), according to Mok's
sister. Mok was born in Pra Keap village in Trapeang Thom commune, Tram Kak, under
the shadow of the Damrey Romeal mountain which would become his guerrilla training
ground years later.
His real name was Oung Choeun - not Chhit Choeun, as is commonly cited - according
t o his sister Poun, who was first located by French historian Henri Locard.
Poun still lives in Tram Kak, in a small wooden house a stone's throw from Wat Trapeang
Thom (Big Pond pagoda) where Mok was educated as a boy.
Mok was the eldest of seven children: two brothers, Chong and Cham, and four sisters,
Poun, Kuob (which translates to 'extra' - because she had 12 toes), Koeun and Ken.
Poun says their father, Oung Preak, was raised at a local pagoda from the age of
eight and didn't marry until he left the monkhood when he was about 40-years-old.
Poun and her daughter, Kul Mi, say proudly that Preak had a degree in Pali and spent
time teaching in Phnom Penh.
Preak, from Trapeang Kuol village, married a woman from neighboring Pra Keap named
Ouk Soch. Soch was part-Chinese but Poun and her daughter take offense at questions
about this. Declaring that the family is "Khmer sot" (real Khmer), they
say Soch was just "a little bit" Chinese.
Mok's parents were "middle-class, compared to the local people", says Kul
Mi, Poun's daughter. "They had a house with a tiled roof, and much land. They
could produce 300 thang of paddy [a Khmer harvest measure which would produce about
4.5 tonnes of husked rice] per year."
Mok, like his father, went off to the wat to study at a young age. "I don't
have any memory of him at the wat," says Poun, explaining that the young Mok
lived with his grandmother in Pra Keap, close to the wat, while his brothers and
sisters lived with their parents in Trapeang Kuol.
Mok became a monk, Poun says with obvious pride, and was taken by his father to study
in Phnom Penh, at Wat Moha Muntrey near the Olympic Stadium, she thinks. She recalls
going there once, for a ceremony to bless a house built by Mok and his father.
With her thin face, pointed features and protruding teeth, Poun, aged in her mid-60s,
bears a clear resemblance to Mok. Her timidity bears witness to the treatment, including
a stretch in prison in the early 1980s, she has suffered for the sin of being Ta
Mok's sister. Neighbors say she has never been the same since she was robbed years
ago by bandits who, sure that any sister of Ta Mok must have lots of money, were
vicious when they discovered they were wrong.
Sitting in the shade, the accouterments of mat-weaving scattered around her, Poun
is silent for long periods before breaking in excited chatter with her shrill voice.
She says she only ever wanted a simple life - "Don't get involved in politics,
otherwise you will have a short life" - and never went to school, can't read
or write a single letter. Her memory of Mok is poor, and worsens the more touchy
the questions. "I'm sorry I cannot remember. I am not enough of a human being,
especially when I am frightened," she says at one point, with sincerity enough
to embarrass any questioner. Her daughter Kul Mi, munching on betel nut leaf, is
the talkative one, jogging her mother's memory.
Poun's happiest recollections are of Mok's return from Phnom Penh, when he left the
monkhood and within a month married Ouk Khem, the daughter of his mother's sister.
It was the honeymoon time: Mok, his wife, brothers and sisters worked the fields
under the sun and played games like hide-and-seek under the stars.
"He was a good man, a gentle brother. He teased us a lot, in a fun way,"
Poun says fondly. "He wanted people to like him, to be happy with him. He liked
to grow rice, too."
Mok's wife gave birth to a daughter, who they named Khom. Poun is vague about dates
but thinks that Khom, were she still alive, would be about 50 today - putting the
year at around 1947. Mok would have been aged about 21. Then he vanished.
"Morals of the people"
Leaving his wife and daughter, Mok (then still known as Choeun) joined the Khmer
Issarak independence movement fighting to throw off the French colonial yoke.
A fellow Issarak - born and raised in Samrong commune, next to Mok's home of Trapeang
Thom - was a young Pen Sovann, also embarking on what was to be an extraordinary
life in the cause of revolution.
Today, Pen Sovann's name is stamped through Cambodia's modern history books. He claims
to have joined the Issaraks at age 13, went on to be a leading Vietnamese-trained
communist cadre, and worked with Pol Pot and Ieng Sary until he fell out with them
and fled to Vietnam months before the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. After the Vietnamese
invasion four years later, he returned with Heng Samrin, Chea Sim, Hun Sen and others,
rising to the top of the new regime. Displeasing his Vietnamese masters, he was purged
and jailed in Vietnam for a decade.
Now the founder of one of the newest political parties on the Phnom Penh block, Sovann
is a man with a precision for history.
"Ta Mok joined the Khmer Issaraks in February, 1949. I joined the Khmer Issaraks
on February 3, 1950," he says. "At that time we did not have enough officials
to lead all the districts. Ta Mok was the chief of the Issaraks in Kung Pisey district
of Kampong Speu and Tram Kak district of Takeo."
Sovann - who was encouraged to join the independence fight by his mother, an Issarak
supporter, and by local monks - suggests that Mok's political awakening came during
his time as a monk.
The teenage Sovann served as a "bodyguard", presumably more like a messenger,
to Mok for two years from 1950, before joining an Issarak fighting unit. He knew
Mok as Chhit Choeun, and insists that was his real name.
The French accused the Issaraks in Tram Kak of abusing the local people, but Sovann
denies that Mok was cruel. "At that time, Ta Mok was a good man. He had just
left the monkhood. We used to talk about the morals of the people who wanted to struggle
for independence... Ta Mok always educated people to work in good ways." Sovann
qualifies all his comments with "at that time".
Sovann says Mok had no formal military training and, contrary to Mok's family's belief,
never visited Vietnam before joining the Issaraks.
But the Issaraks were reinforced by guerrillas from the Viet Minh, the anti-French
resistance in Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh's Indochina Communist Party supported the
founding of the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party.
"From 1949 or 1950, Ta Mok cooperated with the communists of the Vietnamese
party. He wanted Vietnamese officials to work with him," Sovann recalls of the
man now known for his rabid anti-Vietnamese sentiments. He says Mok worked closely
with Viet Minh fighters, particularly those who were Khmer Krom (Cambodians from
By 1954, Cambodia had gained independence and the Geneva peace agreement which divided
Vietnam was struck. For the Viet Minh, and the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party,
independence was merely one step on the road to communist liberation. Sovann says
the Issaraks effectively split into three groups: those who left the movement; those,
like himself, who were sent "abroad" - to Vietnam - for training; and those,
like Mok, who returned to civilian life but remained covert agents.
Mok, according to Sovann, went back to the monkhood, this time at remote Kat Phluk
pagoda, in Kampong Speu's Baset district just across the Takeo border. "He thought
that if he became a monk again, he could secretly play the political activities.
He was [still] a cadre of the struggle movement."
"My father used to say 'My first son, he is crazy. He doesn't care about
his family, wife and children. He just cares about the people outside the house',"
recalls Mok's sister Poun.
The way she remembers it, Mok was always away, in the jungle and later in Phnom Penh,
but returned periodically to visit his wife. He would visit his wife, she would get
pregnant, he would go away again. The couple had three more children, she says, but
she is unsure of the dates.
She recalls Mok's wife Khem being jailed for a year or two, but is vague on whether
this was when Mok was an Issarak or, much later, a Khmer Rouge guerrilla.
Some years after Cambodia's independence, Poun says, Mok returned to Phnom Penh "to
teach monks" and get a degree. Historian Steve Heder says Mok reportedly got
an elementary-level Pali school degree, and became a lay teacher for monks.
It was reportedly in Phnom Penh that Mok met Saloth Sar (Pol Pot), who - after studying
in France, along with Ieng Sary, Son Sen, Khieu Samphan and others - had joined the
Issarak-Viet Minh resistance in 1953.
Sovann, who was in Vietnam at the time, claims that Mok was almost certainly present
at the famous September 30, 1960 secret meeting of the core of Khmer communists -
including those who had studied in France, and others who had learned their communism
almost exclusively from the Vietnamese - held at the Phnom Penh railway yards. The
meeting appointed a new "central committee", including Pol Pot, Nuon Chea,
Ieng Sary and others who reigned over the 1975-79 Democratic Kampuchea regime. It
was a key step in the birth of the Khmer Rouge.
According to Ben Kiernan's book The Pol Pot Regime, Mok met Pol Pot in the "early
1960s", apparently while attending Phnom Penh's Higher School of Pali, and was
not promoted to the central committee until 1963.
By the mid '60s, Mok was back in his old stomping ground, becoming communist party
secretary and chief of the Khmer Rouge insurgents in the Southwest Zone, covering
much of Takeo, Kampong Speu and Kampot.
While Mok's father may have said his son didn't care about his family, the reality
is that the guerrilla chief looked after his own. By 1975, about a dozen of his relatives
and in-laws were party officials (Poun swears she refused offers of positions) around
his zone. His power was cemented.
Somewhere along the way he had dropped his real name Choeun and become 'Mok'. How
and when is unclear: His cousin Kul Mi says the name Mok was given to him by the
KR; so too does Pen Sovann, who claims Pol Pot labeled him Mok in 1968, the year
he reportedly became Southwest secretary; Mok's sister Poun appears confused, initially
saying that 'Mok' was a childhood nickname but later saying he took the name as an
Both Poun and Kul Mi are adamant the name means nothing: it is not Muk, the Khmer
word for face, nor a reference to anything else. It is, they say, just a name.
Years later, Poun dubbed her own son a-Mok. (the term 'a' can mean "the contemptible"
or can be a term of endearment, depending on the context). "I used to call my
son a-Mok, a-Mok," she says, giggling. "We have a lot of Mok names in our
family. We joke like that."
"Don't ever run away"
Harm Pan knew him as "Uncle Mok". Pan doesn't know how old he was when
he first met Mok, except that he was "between boy and man". It was around
1970, he believes. His family and others in Kampong Speu's Baset district had been
rounded up by the rebels and taken to Khmer Rouge-controlled Kat Phluk - where Mok,
after Cambodia's independence, had served his second stint in the monkhood.
After a dispute with his parents, the young Pan ran away to Trapeang Veng, the main
guerrilla base in the area, to become a fighter.
Today, from his wooden shack in Trapeang Chumrov in Baset, a melancholic Pan - struck
by abject poverty and lingering illness - remembers every detail of his first encounter
with the KR chief.
"Ta Mok saw me and approached me, and asked: 'You look sad. Are you frightened?
"I said 'No, my face is like that'," recounts Pan, whose face - nearly
30 years on - is still like that.
Pan begged Mok: "Om [uncle], Om, let me stay here to live with you." Mok
replied: "If you want to leave, leave. If you want to stay, stay. But if you
stay, don't ever run away from me." Pan stayed, and "two days later I put
on a Khmer Rouge uniform".
Pan says he became the youngest of 12 members in what he describes as Mok's "radio
protection unit", under the command of a man named Bou Ran. Asked if it was
a radio protection unit or a bodyguard unit for Mok, he replies: "It's the same".
"The radios were very important - he used to sleep in his bed next to the radios,"
Pan says of Mok. "He used three radios. One was set on the [channel of] the
Lon Nol soldiers, one was for our soldiers, and one was to scan the [channels of
the] aircraft, so he knew where they were going to bomb."
There were many planes and many bombs. "Sometimes bombs dropped very near us,"
Pan reminisces, pointing to a cow about 20m from where he squats, "while we
were sleeping in our hammocks. But the shrapnel went up over our heads."
While legends abound of Ta Mok the fighter, personally leading his troops into battle,
Pan differs on that: "I almost never saw him approach a frontline. He was far
away, but he gave orders to the frontline on his radio.
"Ta Mok swore a lot on the radio. He would shout when his soldiers lost to the
enemy. When I heard him arguing on the radio with a division or battalion commander,
I thought maybe they would have a problem later."
Some 5km away, in Chke Sreng village, fellow former guerrilla Bou Try - a messenger
for Mok's battalion commanders in Kampong Speu - agrees.
"Ta Mok never joined the army in the frontline. He just used the radio, or sent
a messenger," says Try, who joined the Khmer Rouge in 1973.
"I can say that he was a strong commander, but strong with his words - he had
the power. We had to do what he said: There was only one way to go, as he told us
- forward, to the front, to attack the enemy."
Try recalls fierce fighting at Ang Snoul, along Route 4 about 20km south of Phnom
Penh, not long before the capital was captured in 1975. "You know who were the
strongest fighters - it wasn't Ta Mok, he was far away. The strongest fighters were
us," he declares, stabbing a finger at his chest. "It was a very strict
rule - we were not allowed to run away. Stand up, keep tall, until the last blood."
Bou Try and Harm Pan say they never saw or heard of Mok killing anyone, though Pan
adds "I was not with him all the time". Try, asked what happened to soldiers
who ran away, replies that they would be killed by their battalion commanders.
Was Mok cruel? Harm Pan ponders for a second, and replies: "It's difficult to
say. Sometimes when he met the soldiers, he called them Kaun [son]. Sometimes he
said Kaun, Kaun as he beat someone with a stick.
"He beat bad soldiers. I remember once when the soldiers destroyed a base of
Lon Nol soldiers, he went to visit and he saw the Khmer Rouge soldiers had cut the
tires of a truck. He chased a soldier and beat him.
"Mok never forgot his stick when he went out," Pan chuckles, describing
a long piece of bamboo, with curved root used as a handle.
Generally, however, Mok was not mean to his men. "He was kind. He would give
things to people and take them back. He was famous for that."
"Take the watch"
If there's one story about Mok which is legend around Kampong Speu and Takeo,
it's that of his wristwatch.
"If you meet him and you dare to talk to him, he will give you things,"
recounts Pan with an inevitable grin. "If you see he's wearing a watch, and
you say 'That's a nice watch', he gives it to you. When you see he's wearing a silk
sarong, he'll give it to you."
There's a catch: "If you keep it and Ta Mok sees you again, he will ask for
it back. He will say 'If you lend the watch to me, I'll give it to him [another soldier]'.
He was always doing that.
"If you disappear and stay away from him, then whatever he gave you belongs
to you - you can keep it," says Pan, who once wore Mok's watch for four days.
If Mok was trying to teach his men something about sharing, the message was lost
on Pan. "I just thought he was crazy, giving things to people and then taking
them back," he says, laughing.
The story is retold by many others - some who wore Mok's watch and many more who
have just heard the tale. They all insist that if you went away with Mok's watch,
you could keep it - but everyone says that Mok had only one watch; no one, it seems,
ever saw fit to take off with his watch.
Bou Try adds a touch of realism: "The people who asked for his watch were close
to him. If you didn't know him, you would be too afraid to even look at him. You
would never ask him for anything."
Try recalls the day, "after the liberation" in 1975, when he and a friend
- who had also met Mok before - were working in a road gang and Mok came along.
"My friend saw Ta Mok and told me 'Let's see. I am going to ask him for his
watch.' My friend went up to him and said: 'Ta, Ta, can I have the watch?' 'Take
it, take it,' Ta Mok said.
"My friend kept working, and Ta Mok went away and then later he came back. 'Give
the watch back if you're not going to take it', he said to my friend. My friend said
'Why do you say that I'm not taking it. I'm wearing it.'"
Without a word, Mok went up to the man, grasped his wrist, removed the watch and
There are, it seems, limits to Mok's humor.
"Dark sky, dark earth"
Harm Pen remembers only one time when Mok personally led an attack. It was April
1975, as the Khmer Rouge closed in on Phnom Penh. For Mok's Southwest troops, the
heaviest fighting was around Ang Snoul - "we fought for three days and three
nights" Harm Pen remembers - and from there, the next target was Kambol, south
of Pochentong airport.
"Before we attacked, we had a party. We ate a pig. Ta Mok would speak to his
troops before he sent us to fight. He would ask his soldiers: 'Who is frightened
here? Anyone who is frightened can go back to the munty [office].' No one would ever
After Ang Snoul, Kambol was easy. "We finished our bowls of rice and then we
captured Kambol," is how Pan puts it. He remembers Mok yelling as he led his
men forward. "He was shouting to frighten the enemy, and we all shouted. The
bullets were not the most important thing - the important thing was our voices, so
the Lon Nol soldiers thought there were many of us. Ta Mok was shouting 'chol, chol''
[go forward, or penetrate]."
Kambol fell, in just one of many battles which marked the final collapse of Phnom
Penh, besieged from all sides. The Democratic Kampuchea regime was born.
"After we captured Kambol, Ta Mok stayed there for 10 days after Phnom Penh
fell," according to Pan. "They had evacuated the city. He said we have
to empty the city and then clean up the city."
Pan recalls a "victory ceremony" at Toul Prich, on the southern outskirts
of Phnom Penh. "There was a lot of food: cows, pigs and Khmer noodles. There
were so many soldiers, stretching maybe five kilometers by five kilometers. It was
dark because of the color of the uniforms: dark sky, dark earth. Ta Mok gave a speech."
Pan has long since forgotten Mok's words; all he remembers is that "Ta Mok spoke
a lot, a lot - from morning to evening. It was not a simple ceremony. It was a big
Pan says Mok's bodyguards and commanders were asked to write their biographies -
part of the customary vetting of cadre and soldiers - as 'Angkar' (the Democratic
Kampuchea "organization") decided their futures. Pan was sent to Phnom
Penh for training in a tank unit. He claims he never saw Mok again.
• Next edition: 1975 onward; the life, crimes, myths and splits of Ta Mok.