Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Southwest: flames from the ashes

Southwest: flames from the ashes

Southwest: flames from the ashes

Ta Mok's Southwest Zone was one of the most devastated, perilous, strict and notorious

zones - crucial to Pol Pot's rise and grip on power - in Khmer Rouge history.

If, as historian Ben Kiernan has written, the United States intervention in Cambodia

- and particularly its B-52 bombing campaign - was "probably the most important

single factor in Pol Pot's rise", then the Southwest is probably the best example.

Today, in Mok's birthplace of Tram Kak everyone remembers the skies which rained

bombs - "the B50s", as many call them. Older buildings still bear the scars

of being blown up: many by B-52s, villagers say, and others by KR guerrillas trying

to deprive Lon Nol soldiers of cover.

The first American bombings were in 1969 but by 1973, after the US withdrawal and

cease-fire in Vietnam, Cambodia was "the only game in town", as CIA director

William Colby put it. The US played hardball: in six months from March 1973, a quarter

million tons of explosives were dropped on Cambodia.

The Southwest was carpet-bombed. Villages were literally annihilated. In Tram Kak,

80 people were killed in a single air raid on a village in Kus commune, according

to villagers interviewed by Kiernan. Another raid nearby destroyed 120 homes - a

single family survived.

If people needed a reason to fight Lon Nol and the US, they were given it. The airstrikes

became the main theme of the KR's recruitment propaganda, according to villagers

and even CIA intelligence at the time.

While the B-52 campaign helped swell KR ranks, its impact on internal Southwest politics

- and ultimately the KR national leadership - is less certain.

The bombings coincided with a power-struggle between rivals within the Southwest

Zone, which the 'moderates' lost. Kiernan goes so far as to say that the US action

tipped the balance of power there in favor of Pol Pot and his allies, including Mok.

In February 1974 a US foreign service officer, Kenneth Quinn - now the Ambassador

to Cambodia - wrote a cable to Washington which was one of the first detailed assessments

of Cambodian communism.

Based primarily on interviews with Cambodian refugees along the Vietnamese border,

Quinn split the Khmer communist insurgents into two rival groups: the Khmer Krahom

(Red Khmer) hardliners, and the more moderate Khmer Rumdoah (Khmer Liberation), as

he dubbed them.

Entitled "The Khmer Krahom Program to Create a Communist Society in Southern

Cambodia", Quinn's cable was a perceptive prediction of what Cambodia was in

for under the Pol Pot regime.

Highlighting the Khmer Krahom's attempts to "reorganize, restructure and communize

Khmer society", Quinn cited comprehensive programs aimed at: insuring firm control

over the population, including by forced relocation; "psychologically reorienting

the citizenry" through reeducation; collectivizing agriculture and economic

systems; and reforming social, religious and cultural practices, with persecution

of monks and Chams.

As well as their hardline communism, what distinguished the Khmer Krahom from their

fellow Khmer Rumdoah guerrillas was their increasingly vocal opposition to the leader

of the anti-Lon Nol resistance front - the deposed Prince Sihanouk - and to the Vietnamese.

Quinn reported purges and executions of pro-Sihanouk cadre, and of those who were

in favor of continued support from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. While

the Khmer Rumdoah were fighting to put Sihanouk back in power, the Khmer Krahom saw

him only as a figurehead.

By late 1973, Quinn reported, the two factions "were at each other's throats"

in parts of the south. Their rivalry had prompted kidnappings, arrests and executions,

as well as pitched battles.

Quinn labeled Ta Mok as a moderate, and reported that the regional chief had even

been ambushed by fellow insurgents while traveling with North Vietnamese Army soldiers.

Ben Kiernan, citing former KR including Heng Samrin (now the honorary CPP president),

paints a different picture: that of Mok heavily involved in purges of the 'moderates'.

What is known is that there were major confrontations, and that the so-called communist

party "Center" - the central committee led by Pol Pot, based in Cambodia's

north - sent troops to support the Khmer Krahom hardliners. Tea Banh, the current

Minister of Defense, was one who narrowly avoided being purged and took up arms against

"Center" forces.

During 1973-74, four of the eight leaders of the Southwest's ruling committee were

purged, according to Kiernan. Pol Pot and the "Center" extinguished the

flickers of dissent within the movement; Mok became a closer ally of Pot's.

It was a fore-runner of what was to come: during the 1975-79 Democratic Kampuchea

regime, forces from the Southwest - "the heartland of Pol Potism", as it

has been called - were instrumental in purges of perceived dissenters and traitors

around Cambodia.

Tram Kak was perhaps the heartland of the heartland. Since before the regime took

power, Mok's daughter Khom (who died around 1977) and her husband Muth (currently

fighting for the KR in Samlot) won praise for pioneering collectivization, communal

eating and other reforms in Tram Kak.

Later, during the Pol Pot regime, Tram Kak was chosen as the site of a "model

cooperative", Leay Bo village, where foreign delegations were taken in 1978

to see the KR's agricultural 'nirvana' in action. They didn't see the starvation

or the executions which were common in the district, but perhaps it was a 'model'

Pol Pot village after all.

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