Shaded in the front and sides by thick mango trees, three houses sit silent and empty most of the time. But people walk in and out, especially from the main house, supported by high wooden pillars, where they can see large wall paintings of Angkor Wat, the temple at Preah Vihear and a map of Cambodia. At the back side of this house is a balcony that overlooks a mossy lake dotted with dying, drowning trees.
This is the house of Ta Mok, one of the Khmer Rouge’s top leaders. He died six years ago, but his house still stands. His house, built in 1991 on the edge of a lake in Anlong Veng district in Oddar Meanchey province, is about 125 kilometres north of Siem Reap.
In a quickly transforming country, Ta Mok’s home has become a tourist attraction for those exploring the tender roots of Cambodia’s political history.
Anlong Veng was once a tiny village hidden inside a dense forest by the foot of the Dangrek Mountains, before the upheaval of the 1970s. The official photographer at the Khmer Rouge’s notorious Tuol Sleng prison, Nhem En, 52, settled there with other Khmer Rouge people in 1989 when they had been pushed away by Vietnamese troops following a decade of insurgency.
“When Vietnamese troops attacked us, soldiers, people and top Khmer Rouge leaders were fleeing along Oral Mountain. Anlong Veng was actually controlled by the Phnom Penh government, but we attacked to get it in 1989 or 1990 and have settled here since then,” Nhem En said.
He says more than 30,000 people – civilians and military – hid themselves inside thatch or makeshift cottages amid the guerrillas there. Ta Mok built a dam to block water, spanning over 440 hectares, for their survival. It’s still called it ‘Ta Mok’s lake’ – at the back of his house, where the trees now drown.
“Fortunately, the lake was plentiful in fish, which could feed people very well,” Nhem En recalled.
Ta Mok began to strengthen his region by bolstering security and pouring into the local economy. He built a main road by clearing a forest by the Thai border, and used profits from logging to purchase food or make local donations.
In 1993, he built a hospital and a school: something the Khmer Rouge regime had never done before.
“After 1979, we didn’t wear the black uniform anymore,’’ the photographer explained of his people’s transformation. “We wore the normal clothes. All products, shoes, hammocks, clothes, caps and even weapons were donated from China.”
The Khmer Rouge was also able to obtain a truck manufactured in China carrying a satellite to broadcast radio. Ta Mok’s regime used the equipment to bring a piercingly partisan voice to the provinces under government control. They played Khmer Rouge propaganda and revolutionary songs.
“The government listened to our radio,’’ he said. “We were not allowed to listen to the government’s side, so some people hid to listen to it. Both the government and Khmer Rouge cursed each other on the radio.”
Nhem En still remembered that everybody, even a tiny child, was told to work. Men hid in the jungle’s front line while women and children sharpened deadly bamboo traps at home to protect themselves.
Many died or lost limbs after stepping on land mines planted by people – who back then – didn’t care.
“The government soldiers launched heavy attacks on us two times and even burned our houses, but we fought and got the area back – but life as guerrilla was so miserable,” Nhem En said.
The governor of Anlong Veng and a former Khmer Rouge soldier, Yim Phanna, noticed that eight among his 20 staff, who worked with him at the district hall, were former Khmer Rouge soldiers.
Yim Phanna had, like many others, lost a leg during the war. He still believes that people in the government were aware of the dangers back then, and did little to stop it.
After the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, Yim Phanna was nominated as the negotiator for the Khmer Rouge regime to meet with the government in Phnom Penh.
But he wasn’t exactly comfortable.
“While I was sent to negotiate, the Khmer Rouge still laid mines and attacked government soldiers,’’ he said. “So it was hard on me when I had a meeting with the government side.”
“When I came back, I was accused of betraying the Khmer Rouge and selling my head to the other side. They said I was not radical enough with their [principles],” he added.
In 1997, mistrust exploded at Anlong Veng. Pol Pot ordered his death squads to catch another top leader, Son Sen, and kill his entire family of 11.
The order was viciously carried out.
Yim Phanna then made history when, along with Ta Mok, he captured Pol Pot. The disgraced leader was condemned to house arrest.
Some soldiers who followed Pol Pot were also killed by Ta Mok. After Pol Pot’s death due to illness, one year later, Yim Phanna persuaded his people to side with government.
“The fight between Cambodians and Cambodians was not made by us alone. It was pressured from the outside. At that time, I thought if we did not finish the war quickly, we would be the loser because everybody was Cambodian in this war,’’ Yim Phanna said.
Now, he is proud of his decision. Anlong Veng has become well-developed; it’s more prosperous than Samrong district, the centre of Oddar Meanchey province.
When the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) handed history books to students and inaugurated a memorial site last Friday at Anlong Veng high school, Yim Phanna told his people not to be scared of sharing information.
Yim Phanna directed his speech towards an elderly woman known as Chem, who’s witnessed the brutal violence of the Khmer Rouge regime first-hand. He encouraged her not to be afraid of sharing her story with those collecting information for the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Chem, like many, worries that the net is being cast too wide in implicating people’s involvement with the Khmer Rouge in Cases 003 and 004. He assured her of his trust in the government to intervene.
Anlong Veng is located on the way to Preah Vihear temple, near Thailand at the Choam border crossing; it’s a two-hour drive from Siem Reap.
The road is busy until 10pm. There are 14 guest houses and 19 restaurants in Anlong Veng to accommodate travellers.
Cages that were once used to imprison people and a wrecked mobile radio truck mark the perimeter of Ta Mok’s house. They remind visitors of Anlong Veng’s tragic past.
Pol Pot’s grave, stark with a bare shrine, is 16 kilometres from the house. About 10 people peer at it each day.
Yim Phanna said the Ministry of Tourism plans to rebuild other Khmer Rouge memorials in Anlong Veng. These projects include the restoration of a weapons storage unit and the house that Pol Pot died in.
He hopes that Anlong Veng can serve as a living historical archive for the people of Cambodia, and that those in possession of items from the Khmer Rouge’s occupation will donate them to the projects.
Yim Phanna doesn’t know when construction on the new projects will start.
“In the past, people felt scared and hated this place,” he said. “But now it has become a spot for tourists - I’m proud of it.”
Nhem En wanted to build a museum himself. He said he has access to various items that once belonged to Pol Pot, including his camera, a pair of sandals and a water bottle.
He alone has a collection of about 1,000 Khmer Rouge folk songs.
To contact the reporter on this story: Roth Meas at [email protected]