Ta Mok

by Ann Kohler, Mar 23, 2006 | Destinations: Cambodia / Phnom Penh

Anlong Veng, Cambodia, 2004 - For years the multi-level wooden home situated on man-made wetlands sheltered the Khmer Rouge's last and final holdout, Ta Mok.

When the fierce commander took to the jungle in 1998 to fight government troops, the house was looted and rummaged by soldiers and journalists until all traces of him disappeared. Now, the eerie building might go through yet another transformation, into a memorial to the man also known as "The Butcher."

Local officials here in the last Khmer Rouge stronghold say they are raising funds to construct a museum -- much like their counterparts in Pailin, who recently proposed a Khmer Rouge "war museum" of tanks and artillery they confiscated from government soldiers.

What would make this one unique, however, is that it would be dedicated to the work of one man, and quite a controversial one at that.

During the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975-1979 that resulted in the deaths of more than one million Cambodians from starvation, overwork and political torture, Ta Mok ran the country's brutal Southwest Zone.

Researchers also believe he was third in the regime's national security hierarchy, after Pol Pot and Son Sen -- which could mean he could face a UN-government tribunal in the coming years for violating international law.

After the regime's fall in 1979, Ta Mok took to the jungle to lead Khmer Rouge forces as they fought a decades-long civil war against government troops. By the time most rebel forces were defecting to the government in late 1998, Ta Mok was the last holdout, a fugitive along the Thai-Cambodian border surrounded by a small band of loyalists.

Since his arrest in March of 1999, little has been heard of Ta Mok. He now sits in a Phnom Penh military prison and is allowed no visitors, while former Khmer Rouge rebels who abandoned him during those final days thrive here on a new openness to development.

Preak Henh, 40, is one of Ta Mok's daughters who still lives here, eking out a living by growing rice and raising chickens. She has heard nothing about the new museum. But she said she is not surprised about it, either.

"People all say he was so fierce. But they don't know that he could laugh and joke with his grandchildren, too," she said. To her, the recent events in her father's life mean the end of an era here in Anlong Veng, where people from all over the country are moving in to set up shop in a region that for so long had neither contact nor commerce with the rest of the country.

Authorities believe once true development reaches here -- for instance, the near-complete road that links it to Siem Reap town -- tourists will flock to the museum. "They will come.

Everybody wants to know what Ta Mok did during his control," said Yim Phem, who commands an army division here and who led the defection against Ta Mok.

Both his supporters and his detractors believe in the project, said Ta Mok's former right-hand man, Kem Them. "All around the world, leaders make mistakes. But then after their defeat, their lives are displayed for the new generation, and we learn from their lives," he said.

Yet one Phnom Penh-based tourism official said the project is not only myopic, but a bit too optimistic for a still-struggling Cambodia. "Who is he, outside of Cambodia? I don't think there is any reason to honor him," said So Mara, secretary general of the National Tourism authority of Cambodia.

Ke Pauk, the now-deceased Khmer Rouge commander of the Northwest Zone from 1975-1979 who was allied with Ta Mok until he defected to the government in the late 1990s, and who also could face a tribunal, said no Butcher deserves a museum.

"They can not make a museum for him. He's a killer," said the aging rebel in 2000 from his home in nearby Siem Reap. "That is not only the house of Ta Mok. It is the house of the people who worked hard to build it. Everything in Anlong Veng, the bridge, the hospital, all gets credited to Ta Mok. But what about the people? Why not dedicate it to them?"

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