Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Catalogue of killing - the case against Mok

Catalogue of killing - the case against Mok

Catalogue of killing - the case against Mok

HE'S known to the outside world as 'The Butcher', a remorseless killer most famous

for the pogroms which cut a bloody swathe through the Pol Pot regime's own ranks.

But what was Ta Mok's position in the Democratic Kampuchea rule of 1975-79, how much

influence did he have on its policies, and what could he be charged with in a hypothetical


As with much of the DK leadership, "smoking gun" evidence against him -

such as personally- signed execution orders - has proven elusive.

The closest that the Documentation Center, the Cambodian genocide research institute,

has so far found is several documents among hundreds of thousands of pages of Santibal

(DK secret police) records.

The documents were confessions of inmates at the S-21 (Tuol Sleng) prison in Phnom

Penh, sent to Mok in his role as Southwest Zone secretary by prison chief Deuch,

who coincidentally came from the Southwest himself.

"Yes, I agree this confession is related to army and central medical team. [Signed]

Southwest Zone, Mok" is written on one confession. Its author was later executed,

but there is no evidence on the document that Mok ordered the killing.

Such documents show that Mok was aware of S-21, where thousands of people were tortured

and earmarked for execution, according to Documentation Center director Youk Chhang.

Historian Steve Heder agrees that such evidence "is proof only that [Mok] knew

that people were detained and that they wrote 'confessions', not that they were killed".

But he cites other evidence that Mok was "structurally implicated" in the

DK security apparatus which included S-21.

National responsibility for policy on purges and executions was held by the Military/Security

Commission of the DK Central Committee, according to Heder. Commission members, as

of 1976, were Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Sao Pheum, Ta Mok and Son Sen. (Particular authority

regarding arrests and executions of senior cadre was given to the Office of the Central

Committee, headed from 1977 by Khieu Samphan.)

In March 1976, authority to decide on executions around the country was granted to

each DK zone's ruling committee. Mok, as Southwest Zone secretary, can be held responsible

for killings in his zone, Heder says.

The Southwest Zone boasted at least four prisons - including Krang Ta Chan, in Ta

Mok's birthplace of Tram Kak, established by the guerrillas before the regime took

power - where historian Henri Locard has documented torture and executions.

According to a Documentation Center survey, at least 258 mass graves in nine sites

still exist in the former zone. Based on data from scholars, eyewitnesses and the

former State of Cambodia government, the Documentation Center estimates the number

of executed victims at 15,879.

Although each zone had its own security cadre, Heder argues that "Zone Secretaries

have to bear responsibility for what happened under their authority, just as [the

national] Military/Security Commission members have to take responsibility for what

happened at S-21".

Heder also notes that war crimes (such as the intentional targeting of civilians)

were committed by Mok's Southwest troops during raids into Vietnam.

Fellow historian Ben Kiernan, meanwhile, cites evidence of Mok's support for forcible

relocation - he allegedly ordered the evacuation of Oudong after it was captured

in 1974, and supported the subsequent emptying of Phnom Penh - and his complicity

in several massacres including one of Hanoi-trained Cambodians.

As for the DK's agriculture, economic and social programs, that claimed countless

lives through starvation and disease, Heder says Mok may not have been involved in

deciding such polices. But, like all Zone secretaries, he was responsible for implementing


The ranking within the top hierarchy of the DK remains ambiguous, according to Heder,

but the best available evidence puts Mok at No.4 - after Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Eastern

Zone secretary Sao Pheum (or Phim) - in 1976.

Mok rose to No.3 after Sao Pheum was purged two years later. ("Sao Pheum I can

understand - this man was Vietnamese," Mok recently said of the killing, to

interviewer Nate Thayer.)

Sao Pheum was one of many victims of purges of suspected dissenters and traitors

within DK ranks around Cambodia in the latter stages of the regime. Southwest troops

were used in such sweeps, which earned Mok the moniker "The Butcher" -

apparently bestowed on him much later by foreign journalists, and not generally used

by Cambodians.

Heder has cited "the extraordinary and increasingly crucial role played by...Mok

and many of his subordinates in purging the Communist Party right through to the

beginning of 1979". Furthermore, Mok reportedly took over as secretary of some

purged zones, Heder says. If true, he bears direct responsibility for subsequent

"clean-up" sweeps of the zones.

But, as with much of what happened under the Byzantine regime, nothing is entirely

clearcut. Heder, in a critique of Ben Kiernan's The Pol Pot Regime, urges a degree

of caution in depicting the Southwest - the so-called "heartland of Pol Potism"

- as being in full control of the killings. He notes many senior Southwest cadre

involved in purges were later themselves arrested and executed. Others accused of

treason, including relatives of Mok such as his son-in-law Muth, were saved only

by the Vietnamese invasion.

As the regime turned on itself in paranoid blood-letting, even those who had dutifully

served the cause of murder were not immune. Whether that might have ultimately included

Mok himself is unclear.

Regardless, Heder concludes that the total evidence shows "there is a prima

facie case against Mok for primary culpability in connection with crimes of genocide,

crimes against humanity and war crimes".

So as Mok sits in Anlong Veng today, with Pol Pot purportedly purged and the Khmer

Rouge supposedly rehabilitated, is he any better or worse than, for instance, Ieng

Sary, who has won a Royal amnesty?

Heder draws a distinction in the degree of culpability of Sary and Mok. Sary (whom

he ranks at No.6 in the DK leadership) defended the regime's actions in his role

as Foreign Minister and received some S-21 confessions. But unlike Mok, he had neither

national security responsibilities nor control of a zone.

"To put it slightly differently, even if Sary knew or figured out what was really

happening to cadre who 'disappeared' and vigorously defended in vague but damning

terms what the regime was doing (at the UN, in conversations with diplomats, etc),

Mok's formal role unavoidably suggests a much higher level of involvement,"

Heder told the Post by email. "Perhaps the distinction can be understood as

one between a principal author and implementer of policies of arrest and execution

versus a willing (if sometimes worried) accomplice."

Mok's crimes are by no means limited to the DK regime. More recently, his troops

were linked to numerous massacres of Vietnamese residents in Cambodia in 1993.


  • NY sisters inspired by Khmer heritage

    Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Cambodian-American sisters Edo and Eyen Chorm have always felt a deep affinity for their Cambodian heritage and roots. When the pair launched their own EdoEyen namesake jewellery brand in June, 2020, they leaned heavily into designs inspired by ancient Khmer

  • Schools drawn into Manet degree row

    Prime Minister Hun Sen stepped into the Hun Manet-Sam Rainsy war of words over the validity of Manet’s degree from the US Military Academy at West Point, set off by Rainsy’s claims that Manet had received a “second-class degree” or “honorary degree”. Hun

  • Cambodia records first Omicron community case

    The Ministry of Health on January 9 reported 30 new Covid-19 cases, 29 of which were imported and all were confirmed to be the Omicron variant. The ministry also reported 11 recoveries and no new deaths. Earlier on January 9, the ministry also announced that it had detected the Kingdom's

  • The effects of the USD interest rate hike on Cambodian economy

    Experts weigh in on the effect of a potential interest rate expansion by the US Federal Reserve on a highly dollarised Cambodia Anticipation of the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate hike in March is putting developing economies on edge, a recent blog post by

  • PM eyes Myanmar peace troika

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has suggested that ASEAN member states establish a tripartite committee or diplomatic troika consisting of representatives from Cambodia, Brunei and Indonesia that would be tasked with mediating a ceasefire in Myanmar. The premier also requested that Nippon Foundation chairman Yohei Sasakawa

  • NagaWorld protest part of ‘conspiracy’

    The Phnom Penh Municipal Court and police held a joint-press conference on January 4 to clarify details concerning the arrest of nine former employees of the integrated resort NagaWorld and the charges brought against them, saying that the authorities had clear grounds for taking legal action.