Half a century after he first took up arms, the 71-year-old, one-legged Ta Mok
has purportedly become No.1 in the Khmer Rouge. In the second of two parts, Jason
Barber and Chea Sothea-cheath track the bloody trail of the revolutionary warlord
from the Southwest to Anlong Veng.
"He was the king of Takeo,"says Tit Khem, a former Khmer Rouge, of Ta Mok's
reign over the Southwest Zone during the 1975-79 Democratic Kampuchea (DK) regime.
"Everyone was afraid of him. What he said, he did," recounts Khem, who
lived in Takeo town during the DK era and is now a provincial official. "When
he was unhappy, he would abuse any soldiers near him. They would run away."
Asked whether people respected, liked or hated Mok, Khem shrugs. "It didn't
matter. If you hated him, there was no place to go. But they used to laugh at him
behind his back, and curse him."
By the time Pol Pot came to power in 1975, everyone in the Southwest knew Ta ("Grandfather")
Mok - a native of Takeo who had led guerrilla operations in the region for years
- and that his word was the rule, and his temper was to be avoided.
Swapping jungle bases for a home in Takeo town, Mok's kingdom was also his personal
fiefdom. His power as Secretary of the Southwest Zone was already cemented, and a
virtual dynasty created, by about a dozen of his relatives holding official positions
around the zone. His daughter Khom was Communist Party secretary in Mok's birthplace
of Tram Kak district, her husband Muth was commander of the DK navy in Kampong Som,
and a slew of other relatives or in-laws were district, region or army divisional
As in other DK zones, there were the prisons, torture, executions, starvation and
over-work. But by the end of the three years, eight months and 20 days of the regime,
the Southwest had a particularly bloody reputation even by DK standards.
Although few people doubt Mok's role in the zone's killing machine, Tit Khem says:
"I never saw Ta Mok kill anyone or order people to be killed. But I saw the
commune authorities arrest people and take them to the detention centers.
"I was just a truck driver," says Khem, who used to take people to the
prisons in Takeo. "I didn't know what was going to happen to them."
Khem portrays Mok as demanding and proud of his zone. He ordered grand projects (mostly
uncompleted) such as dams - including one stretching for about 14km in Kampot - and
The former KR driver recalls once receiving some battered, old trucks and taking
them to be repaired. Mok saw the vehicles and demanded: "Why did they give you
old trucks like that? Stop working on those trucks - ask for some new ones."
Mok roamed around in his vehicle - an "American jeep" according to Khem,
though others say it could have been a Chinese one - to check on his domain. "Sometimes
I saw him riding a bicycle along the dikes," says Khem, but mostly Mok used
his jeep. "He wore the black uniform. He never carried a gun but he had an escort,
just one bodyguard and a driver. His driver was very small - his head was barely
over the steering wheel."
A former DK army soldier based near the Vietnamese border, who is now a journalist
in Phnom Penh, remembers Mok's motivational visits to the troops. Put to work digging
trenches or dams from 6am every day, the soldiers would watch Mok drive up to their
worksite mid-morning. The zone leader would grab a shovel and work furiously for
an hour or two, egging his soldiers on, before leaving for his lunch, while they
'He's big and fat'
Mok's younger sister Poun, now aged in her mid-60s, denies that she benefited
from her brother's nepotism. "They offered me positions, priority jobs, but
I said no. I wanted to stay here, and work in my rice fields. They still put me in
the position of chief of village, but I never attended the meetings," she says
of Trapeang Thom Tbong in Tram Kak district, where she lived then and still does.
"Myself, I did not get any help from him," she insists, with a tinge of
bitterness. "He concentrated on his job, on Angkar [the DK 'organization'].
I am not lying to you - this Ta and I, we never had contact with each other."
The only help she did get was from Mok's eldest daughter Khom who, up until her death
from illness around 1977, sent her fish.
Poun claims she was even away in the rice-fields during Mok's one official visit
to his birthplace of Tram Kak, about 30km west of his home in Takeo town, during
the DK regime.
But Poun's daughter Kul Mi, who would have been a teenager or young woman at the
time, remembers the visit well. Popping a piece of betel nut leaf in her mouth, she
recounts the story with relish: "There were a lot of cars, black and white cars.
People were in a line to greet him. Mok spoke on a microphone. He looked like the
King does now.
"He said we had to work hard, to cultivate the land, and to respect them [cadre].
He said we were all equal, there are no rich, no poor, no bosses, no slaves,"
Kul Mi recalls of Mok's speech. "He spoke about the past, the reforms in the
village, and talked about the houses."
The houses were partly a reference to Poun and Kul Mi. They had big houses, in violation
of DK policy that everyone have the same sized, smaller homes.
Kul Mi complained to Mok after his speech: "I said 'You see my big house. They
ask me to make it smaller. I don't agree; why do they want me to have a small house?'"
Mok, she claims, replied: "Whatever they ask you to do, you must follow them.
If not, you might disappear, and I would never know."
Whether or not he meant it, Mok's words were enough. Kul Mi and her mother ripped
down parts of their houses to conform.
Coincidentally, during Mok's visit to the village, he was accompanied by another
important man, according to Kul Mi. "I was standing there watching, and I said
to him [Mok]: 'Who's he? He's big and fat. Is he Chinese?'
"Ta Mok said 'That's him. That's Ta Pot. I brought the high-ranking one here.'"
Kul Mi felt no urge to ask Pol Pot why he was big and fat.
'They died of hunger'
Not long before the Vietnamese invasion of late 1978, Mok took his parents from
Tram Kak to Takeo town, according to his sister Poun.
Vietnam's onslaught - after repeated provocative attacks into its territory by DK
troops including those under Mok's authority - devastated the family. Mok's parents
and his two brothers, Chong and Cham, died after fleeing into the jungle.
"They died of hunger. They could have had enough to eat if Vietnam had not invaded,"
Poun says with venom, ignoring the massive starvation during the DK regime.
As thousands of Vietnamese troops poured across the border from December 25, 1978,
capturing Phnom Penh within 13 days, panicked KR killed thousands of people (historian
Ben Kiernan links Mok to at least one such massacre).
Thousands of others were driven into the hills by KR cadre and soldiers. Forced to
walk for miles toward the northwestern border with Thailand, with little or no food,
many perished along the way. One account has Mok driving up and down a line of deportees
in a jeep, shouting at people to keep moving.
"For those who were at the top of the scale, this march resembled an adventure.
Those at the bottom had to hold off with each step the limit of total exhaustion,"
wrote French-woman Laurence Picq, former wife of an aide to Ieng Sary, in her memoirs.
An adventure of sorts perhaps, but the unceremonious purging of the 'Angkar' by Vietnam
- even if only completing the regime's own slide toward self-destruction through
internal purges - was presumably a bitter blow to its leaders.
The anti-Vietnam virulence of Mok - who had decades earlier welcomed Vietnamese support
when he started his guerrilla career in the Issarak independence movement - was presumably
strengthened. How much the loss of his parents and brothers fortified it further,
can only be a matter of speculation.
'A primitive communist'
Ousted and in disarray, DK remnants regrouped in northern Cambodia and, aided
by Royalist and other resistance forces, set about a guerrilla war against the Vietnamese
By 1983 Mok was in Anlong Veng, the mine-strewn, densely-forested base where he still
A man with prolonged links to the KR, who insists on anonymity, recalls visiting
Anlong Veng in 1983 to meet Mok. The area was littered with the graves of Vietnamese
soldiers, casualties of repeated offensives, the man remembers.
"He was very friendly," Mok's visitor says of his host. "I spent two
nights drinking Singha beer and talking to Mok at his house." Mok made it plain
that his main motivation was "hatred of the Vietnamese". As for the deaths
under Pol Pot, "he said it was done by Vietnamese agents...I knew the rest;
I didn't ask him anything more," according to his visitor.
While Vietnam was the enemy, Mok also wasn't particularly fond of China, the main
long-term foreign supporter of the KR.
"He told me he had a nerve problem in his leg," recounts the man - who
wonders aloud whether medical reasons, rather than a landmine, later cost Mok his
lower right leg - "so I offered him some Chinese acupuncture devices.
"He said he didn't like Chinese medicine. I thought that was strange; he was
depending on Chinese aid at that time. Many of the youngsters went to study in China.
But I got the feeling that Ta Mok himself didn't like China."
Mok also made it plain he had little time for the KR's foreign-educated intellectuals:
"He said he didn't like all this messy politics, that he would let the intellectuals
do that.... He said didn't have a higher education like the others. I [gathered]
he didn't like them."
Mok's antipathy toward the 'intellectuals' is well-known. While hardly from poorest
peasant origins, he was from a humbler background - and less educated, particularly
in revolutionary dogma - than many in the DK leadership.
Historian Steve Heder notes that Mok was one of three members of the DK's top tier
who reportedly did not undergo extended studies in either Vietnam or France (the
other two, Von Vet and Ruoh Nheum, were purged during the regime).
Trained by Vietnamese cadre in Cambodia during the Issarak times, Mok may have made
brief sojourns to Vietnam, but not long-term visits like those by Pol Pot (who earlier
studied in France, along with Ieng Sary and others) or Nuon Chea.
But Heder dismisses the theory that the DK was essentially split, from its roots,
between those who learned their communism primarily from Vietnam, those who did so
from France, and those in neither category. Throughout the KR's rise and fall, he
says, power was effectively held by cross-section coalitions of forces.
Mok's psychology, according to several researchers, is most likely rooted in his
military background. He has long considered himself a man of the people and the soldiers;
while the movement's other leaders played their political games, he was a true fighter,
not afraid to get his hands dirty with his troops - without whom the movement was
Even more so in the early days of the resistance. Several defectors from the Southwest
suggest that Mok, faced with reforming an effective army in the face of a strong
enemy, would have been forced to take a more personal role in combat and in commanding
After the 1979 overthrow, Pol Pot encouraged debate within the movement about its
weaknesses and shortcomings, according to journalist and KR researcher Nate Thayer,
who last year interviewed Pol Pot and Mok.
The regime's disintegration was blamed on regionalism, and lack of consultation,
cooperation and central control. As the KR set about rectifying its 'faults', and
ensuring its military and political survival, Mok - as the leader with the most military
experience - was vital.
For a start, he was extremely good at recruiting - as he had been in the Southwest
in the '60s and early '70s. By the end of the '80s, an estimated 80% of Mok's troops
were new recruits who had not served in the DK regime, according to Thayer.
Eventually, Mok - and several sons-in-law who were division commanders - effectively
controlled 70-80% of the DK army's troops, and certainly the best ones.
Mok's best-known rivalry over the years was with the former DK regime Defense Minister
Son Sen. "Between Ta Mok and Son Sen, there were personal differences: their
social origins, their competence," says researcher Christophe Peschoux, author
of The New Khmer Rouge. "Ta Mok was a peasant, not intellectual, poorly educated,
a fighter, a kind of primitive communist... Son Sen was an intellectual, educated,
a man with a lot of ideas but not very competent at fighting."
On the movement's political side, "intellectuals" whom Mok reportedly had
little respect for included Ieng Sary, who was years later to lead the breakaway
of Pailin and Phnom Malai.
Although presumably falling into the "intellectual" category, Pol Pot was
the glue to the KR jigsaw. The charismatic supreme leader was able to maintain control
of the military and political wings, maintain the loyalty of all, and prevent internal
rivalries from exploding, throughout the '80s and into the '90s.
That it should have been the brutal purging of Mok's long-time rival Son Sen by Pol
Pot last year which triggered Brother No.1's purported overthrow by Mok is perhaps
the ultimate irony.
Critical to the rejuvenation of the KR - and its ongoing survival today - is Thailand.
Mok may have hated Vietnam and been suspicious of China, but Thailand - virtually
within walking distance of his Anlong Veng base - has been a close friend for years.
He speaks Thai and, according to one story, was even granted Thai citizenship at
The intriguing tale is told by the man who visited Mok in Anlong Veng in 1983, who
wishes to remain anonymous but has maintained contact with the KR for more than a
The man recounts how, in the mid-1980s, Thai border troops clashed with Lao insurgents
along the countries' border. The Thais, to their embarrassment, came off second best
in early skirmishes. Mok sent some of his guerrillas to help the Thais, who roundly
beat off subsequent incursions by the Laos.
In gratitude, "Mok and some of his top commanders were taken to the Central
Hotel in Bangkok for a big party, and were handed [Thai] citizenship papers,"
the man says.
The account is impossible to confirm, but what is clear is that Thai officials and
the KR have had mutually beneficial relations - for political and economic reasons
- for close to 20 years.
In the '80s, the link was institutionalized, with Thai special army units responsible
for liaison with the KR guerrillas fighting the Vietnamese. Whatever was needed -
logistical supplies, a hospital bed for a sick guerrilla chief, or a brothel for
a hearty one - Thailand could provide.
Today, if you cross the border from Anlong Veng into Thailand and travel 30-40km
along a sealed road - ideal for logging trucks - you'll find yourself in 'Ta Mok's
village', as some call it.
A few miles from the Thai town of Khukan, you'll find the Khukan Aroonsawat gas station,
with a hotel next to it, and further on is the Khukan Aroonsawat sawmill. Investigators
from the environmental group Global Witness, who visited the area twice in the past
two years, say locals told them the sawmill was built on land personally owned by
Mok. The Khukan Aroonsawat company was part-owned, in reality if not on the paperwork,
by Mok and relatives of Pol Pot, locals told Global Witness.
The logging trade (and in Pailin in the northwest, gem mining) sustained the KR war
machine for years. Although Thailand now denies any support for the KR, and has made
efforts to restrict cross-border trade with the guerrillas, few people doubt that
unofficial links remain firm.
In Anlong Veng, Mok plowed at least some of the timber proceeds into agricultural
projects. Nate Thayer, after visiting there last year, described it as "one
of the more developed rural areas in Cambodia".
Whether out of genuine concern for his people, or simply because he was smart enough
to know that happy soldiers are loyal soldiers, Mok gained a reputation for looking
after his troops and their families.
Unlike some other rebel chiefs, he did not have the reputation, at least among his
men, of lining his own pockets. He may have even changed his former nepotistic ways,
according to KR defectors interviewed by researcher David Ashley.
"Ta Mok is not corrupt at all - he devotes all the money to the war, to the
struggle... all comes out of the proceeds of timber exports," one former Anlong
Veng cadre told Ashley in 1995.
"Ta Mok's money is... not personal, it belongs to the state; he thinks only
of the nation and the people, the needs of his divisions," said another. "Ta
Mok gives very little money to his children; none of his children are rich, they're
poor like us, unless their husbands were division commanders and had money of their
'Dogs as big as horses'
The defectors interviewed by Ashley paint a picture of Mok as a Jekyll-and-Hyde
figure (some people would perhaps use a more clinical term).
"If, say, you drove a motorcycle along a path you shouldn't, Ta Mok would smash
and break the motorcycle but then he would give you the money to buy a new one,"
Another: "If, for example, the person cleaning his car doesn't do a good job,
then he'll beat him with an electric wire. But if the person cleans it well, then
Ta Mok really loves him... If the people come to him and tell him they have no food,
he'll give them all the food, even depriving his soldiers if necessary."
"When he first sees you he'll curse you but when you ask for something he gives
it to you no problem," said another about Mok. And, yes, the old war-horse was
still giving people his wristwatch, as he had done in the Southwest before the Pol
Defectors described a healthy man - "He could last another 20 years," one
said of Mok, then aged in his late 60s, in 1995 - who follows a strict diet, shuns
smoking, and doesn't drink except for a little medicinal alcohol.
Several referred to Mok's interest in rural development. Contrary to the persona
of a 'fight to the death' guerrilla, one defector suggested the KR strongman would
be happy to use his bulldozers more than his guns.
"Ta Mok, like everyone else, wanted to stop the war a long time ago - that was
a genuine feeling, he used to tell me one-to-one how tired he was of it all... Ta
Mok says that if we can solve the political problems and reach national reconciliation,
he'll retire and do construction or development, or be responsible for a particular
Mok, with typical bravado, boasted that within a month of peace and reconciliation,
he would build a dirt road from Anlong Veng to the tourism capital of Siem Reap.
The defector quoted Mok as saying "Hean si, hean sâng" (If you eat
something, you have to pay for it), meaning that "it wouldn't be necessary for
the international community to help".
The most captivating image of Mok from Ashley's interviews is that of an aging guerrilla
and his dogs. While legends abound about Mok's bodyguards - bare-breasted tribes-women,
and so on - several defectors said he was guarded by dogs.
"Ta Mok's dogs are almost as big as horses," enthused one defector. "Only
the dogs defend Ta Mok. If you took so much as a bullet into his house, they would
bite you on the neck and kill you."
Another described about 20 big dogs, provided by a Thai businessman, sleeping in
shifts around Mok's house. "If anyone enters Ta Mok's house, except people the
dogs know... the dogs bite them." Then Mok, always concerned for his men's welfare,
"has to send them to Surin [Thailand] to be treated".
"Oh, you're still alive. I thought you were dead," a misty-eyed Mok
greeted his sister Poun the first, and last, time they met since the Pol Pot regime.
It was in Anlong Veng, but Poun doesn't mention seeing any dogs. Her visit was during
a time when people were allowed to "go back and forth" into KR territory
- probably 1992 or '93. The Takeo authorities authorized her trip, asking her to
urge Mok to join the peace process started by the 1991 Paris agreements.
Poun and another elderly woman, formerly in the KR, went to northern Cambodia, hired
moto-dops and rode off into the hills "following the ox-cart roads until we
found some Khmer Rouge soldiers".
Mok sent a car to pick up the pair and take them to Anlong Veng.
"I got out of the car and I saw Ta Mok. I thought 'He looks the same',"
Poun recounts. "He said to my friend: 'Are you coming too, Mi Yuon? [female
Vietnamese]' He was joking - Ta Mok calls people living [in government areas] Yuon.
"He said to me 'Oh, you're still alive'...," continues Poun. "I said
'How can I die easily? I just stay at home. Even you, a fugitive, are still alive.'
"He said 'Why did you come here?'. I said 'I came here to ask you for money.
I hear you have a lot of money'," says Poun, who was only half-joking.
"He said 'How can you say that? I'm not a businessman. I'm a fugitive. I'm not
Poun stayed four nights in Anlong Veng with Mok, who took her across to Thailand.
"We went to many restaurants. They gave us a lot of beer and food - the restaurant
owners and some people, ordinary people. They just put things in his car."
By the time Poun visited Mok, he had lost his lower right leg. He told his sister
how it happened.
"He said he struggled against the enemy for a long time, and was never hurt.
'But when we had some peace, I lost my leg,' he said... It was not a landmine at
all. It was in his camp, when he was making a road. He said he was standing behind
the tractor, and a chain on the tractor snapped and hit his leg.
"Yes, he has a beautiful leg," Poun says of his artificial limb (complete
with carved wooden toes). "You don't realize that it's not real. It can bend."
In their talks, Poun asked Mok about his love life. His wife had died several years
earlier and he had become friendly with the widow of one of his division commanders.
"She fell in love with Ta Mok and wanted to 'take him' [in marriage], but he
looked like he was not sure," says Poun, giggling. (Bachelor Mok later succumbed
and married her, and they had a baby, according to defectors.)
Poun tried to persuade Mok to return to Tram Kak; he urged her to remain in Anlong
"He said to me 'Oh, don't go back. Stay here with me.' But I said that I didn't
want to live in the jungle.
"I said 'You are old enough now. Stop fighting and arguing. Come back to your
homeland... But he never said yes. He said 'If they stop attacking me, then I will
"Throw Pol Pot in a cage"
Half a century after he first took up arms, a 71-year-old Mok last year faced his
most famous, if perhaps his easiest, battle. He ousted Pol Pot.
The first seeds, perhaps, were planted in 1992 when Son Sen - who, contrary to Pol
Pot and Mok, supported the KR's participation in the UN-sponsored peace process -
was temporarily demoted. His troops in northern Cambodia were handed over to Mok,
reinforcing him as the strongest military commander, according to Nate Thayer.
In the next few years, military defeats prompted Pol Pot to move his base, first
from the south to Pailin, then to Phnom Chat on the Thai border and finally close
to Anlong Veng. Pot became more reliant on Mok.
At the same time, the KR pull-out from the peace process meant that military struggle
took precedence over the work of the 'political' leaders. "Mok and his people
basically thought the other guys were pointy-headed intellectuals who didn't understand
how Cambodia worked. The other guys looked at Mok as a peasant warlord who didn't
understand how the world worked. They were both right in different ways," says
But Mok almost certainly remained loyal to Pol Pot up until the 1996 breakaway of
Pailin and Phnom Malai led by Ieng Sary. Ta Mok, Son Sen and Nuon Chea were dispatched
to Pailin to quell the revolt, and possibly even kill Sary.
"Immediately on coming back, Pol Pot blamed Ta Mok for failing to solve the
situation," says Thayer. Distrustful of Mok, Pot tried to institute his own
military structure in the north, starting to replace Mok loyalists. He may have ordered
Mok killed as early as late 1996, Thayer believes, but was unable to achieve that.
Anlong Veng cadre, supported by Mok, began talks with Funcinpec commanders led by
Nhek Bun Chhay. In an about-face from his earlier views, Mok "wanted a political
solution", says Thayer. "He basically saw what happened in Pailin and said
'Sounds good'. He wanted a Pailin model [of integrating with the government while
retaining considerable autonomy]."
Mok and Son Sen, formerly rivals, were in agreement, but Pol Pot was opposed to integration.
The dispute exploded June 10 last year when Pot had Son Sen and his family killed.
Mok believed he was next on the list.
Pol Pot lost the fight and was captured, learning that the man with direct control
of the most guns held the real power. Mok, in his later interview with Thayer, made
a comment along the lines of: "You know, the Americans say that Khieu Samphan
was a figurehead, but so was Pol Pot. He had no forces - who had the forces? Me!"
The wrath of Mok was raised. "Let me throw the contemptible Pot in a cage first
and then you can take his photograph," Mok exclaimed to Nhek Bun Chhay June
21 when asked to allow Pot to be photographed for the world to see, according to
a Funcinpec negotiator interviewed by Thayer.
Despite his fury, Mok never killed Pot (the idea was certainly discussed in late
June, according to Thayer). "Here's a guy who's clearly on death's door, who
has political bargaining [usefulness] for sure, but who also led the movement for
37 years - there's a lot of contradictory emotional feelings among the ranks about
Pol Pot," says Thayer of why Pot has been spared the final purging.
"A step backward"
The KR embarked on a post-Pol Pot public relations campaign with the July 25 show
trial of their former doyen. Then, on Oct 16 Ta Mok and Pol Pot were interviewed
separately in Anlong Veng by Thayer.
While Pot's words grabbed the headlines, Mok was also coldly unrepentant. Perhaps
one of the most remarkable scenes in the interview videotapes is a relaxed Mok chuckling
as he debated whether the DK regime killed millions of people or, as he said, just
"hundreds of thousands".
As for his own culpability, Mok made it plain that he considered he had only killed
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,"
This is a gentler, more democratic "new" Khmer Rouge? Said researcher Christophe
Peschoux after Pol Pot's apparent ouster: "The question is not whether Pol Pot
is still in charge or Ta Mok is in charge. The real question is whether whoever is
in charge will dramatically change the policies. If it is Ta Mok in charge, there's
no reason to believe there will be any change. In fact, it may even be a step back-ward.
Ta Mok shares the same policies as Pol Pot but is less sophisticated."
So what does Ta Mok want now? According to Thayer, the new KR strongman was willing
to negotiate with Phnom Penh, at least up until the July coup by Hun Sen.
"They're not stupid," Thayer says of Anlong Veng. "They're confident
they can defend their territory, but they know they have to be with a political program."
After July, however, Thayer believes they will continue to try to latch onto the
legitimacy of Ranariddh and his ousted Funcinpec remnants.
"I think the chances of Mok cutting a deal with Hun Sen are zero. As Mok says,
they don't consider [Hun Sen] to be working for the Vietnamese; they consider him
to be a Vietnamese."
Back in Mok's birthplace of Tram Kak, a lifetime away, an aging woman will always
wait for the New Brother No.1 to come home and be her big brother again.
"We are brother and sister - I can't just cut myself off from him," says
Oung Poun. "I don't think he's a bad man, because when we were living together...
he gave his property to the people. He wanted people to like him, to be happy with
Poun, struggling for words, adds: "I just need his body, to live with us, like
we used to before. Happy - then we will be happy."
Will she ever see that day? "I cannot say," she replies and then, after
a pause, murmurs: "When I left him in Anlong Veng, and he asked me to stay there,
he said: 'If you do not stay here, you will never see me again'."