T he times have changed, but the names remain the same. The mutiny by Khmer Rouge
defectors in Samlot is, for former comrades on both sides of the fray, just the latest
chapter. Jason Barber and Samreth Sopha report.
TA Muth, the leader of the Samlot uprising, is a seasoned actor in the furious and
at times farcical dramas of the Khmer Rouge.
Ta Mok's one-time son-in-law and protégé, a veteran of the capture
of Phnom Penh in April 1975, the former chief of the Khmer Rouge navy, and more recently
a reported courier for the movement's timber and gem money, Ta Muth has served the
cause of Democratic Kampuchea for more than two decades.
He is also supposedly not averse to helping himself to the profits of the revolution,
and what is motivating him in his Samlot revolt - money or ideology - is still unclear.
His Samlot exploits - leading the rebellion by KR soldiers who defected to the government,
only to have now apparently switched sides again - are the latest in a colorful career
that has suffered as many setbacks as successes.
Believed to be named Khe Muth, he is better known by the ubiquitous title "Ta"
(Grandfather, or Elder) used by most guerrillas of any standing in the movement.
According to Ben Kiernan's book The Pol Pot Regime, Khe Muth began his revolutionary
career in the early 1970s, as the KR vied for control of the Cambodian countryside
against the American-backed Lon Nol regime.
He was married to Khom, a daughter of Ta Mok, the secretary of the KR's Southwest
Zone - who became, and remains today, one of the most powerful and feared leaders
of the movement - and was one of 13 relatives who rose swiftly through the ranks
courtesy of Mok's nepotism.
By 1973, Muth was secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Mok's home district
of Tram Kak, Takeo. These were tough times: the Southwest Zone was carpet-bombed
by American B-52s and, in an omen of things to come under the Pol Pot regime, internal
party purges of local cadre were already underway.
But Tram Kak was hailed as the most "ideologically advanced" of KR-held
districts, with Muth and Khom earning praise for pioneering the introduction of collective
mess halls, according to Kiernan. The project wasn't an overwhelming success - lack
of food, with people forced to eat "banana leaves, sugar-palm roots, coconuts
and finally weeds", prompted a peasant rebellion.
Muth's career didn't suffer. He rose to become the deputy secretary of one of the
zone's regions, and commander of the guerrilla army's Southwest Zone Division 3.
The division, led by Muth, was one of several which advanced on Pochentong Airport
from Route 4 as part of the KR's successful siege and capture of Phnom Penh in April
Immediately after Phnom Penh fell on April 17, Muth was dispatched to Kampong Som
and appointed the commander of Democratic Kam-puchea's navy, according to Kiernan.
Within days, Muth's forces were launching anti-Vietnamese territory grabs. After
shelling two South Vietnamese-held islands off Kampong Som, including the large one
of Phu Quoc, Muth reportedly launched six boatloads of Southwest Div 3 troops to
According to David Chandler's The Tragedy of Cambodian History, Cambodian troops
swimming ashore planted a plain red revolutionary flag on the beach (Democratic Kampuchea
didn't have an official flag yet). The flag was repeatedly strafed by Vietnamese
helicopters; the Khmers kept replacing it.
Fighting continued after the fall of Saigon to the Vietnamese communists, but Muth's
forces soon lost.
It is unclear, but likely, that Muth was involved in the seizure of the American
freighter the Mayaguez by KR forces in May 1975, which prompted - in the last act
of the Indochina war - the American bombing of the KR's naval facilities and Kampong
Som's oil refinery.
Mok's daughter Khom, who had replaced her husband Muth as party secretary of Tram
Kak, died in 1977, according to Kiernan. Muth retained command of Southwest Div 3,
and the DK navy, while also serving as party secretary of Kampong Som.
It is unclear what role Muth may have played in the purges conducted by southwestern
cadre during the Pol Pot regime, in which Mok and some of his other relatives were
Muth's movements after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 are uncertain but eventually
he ended up in Samlot, in the northwest. At one point, his duties included ferrying
cash from logging or gem proceeds to Thai banks in Chanthaburi and Aranyaprathet,
according to information from defectors to a KR researcher, who asked not to be named.
Another researcher, David Ashley, said that Muth had reportedly lost influence in
the movement by the early 1990s, reprimanded for helping himself to cash.
"He was demoted back in 1992 for corruption, and apparently hasn't held any
official position since," said Ashley, who has extensively interviewed KR defectors.
Whether Muth maintained links to Ta Mok are unclear, but he remarried years ago,
after Mok's daughter Khom died.
Little was heard of Muth until last year's breakaway of Pailin and Phnom Malai, led
by former KR foreign minister Ieng Sary, from Pol Pot's control.
In what clearly wasn't one of the better military maneuvers of his career, Muth participated
in an ill-planned offensive on Pailin, apparently ordered by Anlong Veng to try to
quell the breakaway.
A group of KR including Muth and Ny Korn, the commander of guerrilla Front 250 -
based between Phnom Malai and Pailin - were involved in two simultaneous attacks,
according to KR researchers.
Muth and a small group of fighters moved out of Samlot, leaving it poorly defended,
to advance on Pailin late last September. Ee Chhean, Pailin's military boss, heard
of their plan and swiftly sent troops to capture Samlot and cut Muth and Ny Korn's
Two KR supremos who had stayed near Samlot - Nuon Chea, No.2 in the hierarchy after
Pol Pot, and Son Sen, the movement's former Defense Minister - were sent scuttling
for the Thai border, only narrowly escaping capture themselves.
Meanwhile, Muth's troops were approaching Pailin, "out of food, poorly equipped
and with no radio contact to find out what was going on", according to one researcher.
Expecting the local people to "rise up and support them", they were instead
"greeted by stones being thrown at them".
Ny Korn had as much success with his attack. Captured, he, Muth and fellow guerrilla
chief Iem Phan were invited for "reeducation" in a prison in Pailin.
After a few months, they either escaped or negotiated their release, possibly with
the help of Keo Pong, another defector closely aligned to the CPP. Muth and Iem Phan
went back to Samlot where - apparently perceiving that Funcinpec was close to Pailin
- they officially defected and allied themselves with the CPP.
Most observers, including Ieng Sary, suggested the pair's allegiance to CPP was no
more than a marriage of convenience. The honeymoon was supposedly pleasant enough,
as Muth and Phan - reunited with Ta Bit, another old-timer from the Southwest Zone
- set about making money through logging concessions to Thai firms.
What went wrong is unconfirmed - some cite a dispute over logging profits, while
others say that Ta Mok came along to usher his former son-in-law back into the revolutionary
fold - but two months ago Samlot erupted. Muth and Phan led a small group of loyalists
to fight for control of the district from the government.
For Ta Muth, a new adventure had begun. Whether it will be any more successful than
some of his past exploits, only time will tell.