Anlong Veng: The search for Ta Mok, Khmer Rouge Brother #5

Ta Mok, Khmer for “respected grandfather” was born in Takeo, southeastern Cambodia. Scholars are not exactly sure of his birth date but it was between 1924 and 1926 and there is no agreement as to his real name. He earned “his bones” for ruthlessness as leader of the South West District and rose to become Brother #5 and commander of the Khmer Rouge National Army. As the movement became paranoid and began to devour itself, Pol Pot commanded Ta Mok to purge anyone with suspect loyalties. For his excellent job, he was named “The Butcher”. It was when Ta Mok was sent to cleanse the leadership of the Eastern District that Hun Sen fled Cambodia for Vietnam. Later he would be placed in power by the invading Vietnamese and today he is still ruling the country as Prime Minister.

About a mile north of the roundabout, after passing the site of Ta Mok’s earthen dam, there is a faded blue tourist sign on the right side of the road with an arrow pointing to Ta Mok’s house. We turned down a dirt road forcing Eddie to drive slowly, navigating the ruts. We stopped in front of a sign stating “Tourist Bureau” but when the people inside the small building seemed more concerned with their woodworking and stone carving, we proceeded down the road to his house. This was his town house and when he was on the run, he had another house on the nearby Dangkrek Escarpment, close to the Thai border.

His two story house with a basement is built out of wood and concrete with five foot round tree trunks to give extra support. It is situated within a large yard on the edge of the lake he created and seen from a distance, it seems to jute out onto a small promontory. When he flooded the land, the trees died. Today, devoid of leaves and branches, the tree trunks are still standing, silent reminders of the atrocities committed by these people. Everything moveable has already been taken out of the house, leaving only the floor tiles and the amateurish
murals on the walls. The upstairs room, with a fine view of the lake, must have served as the situation room as along with the murals of Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear, there is a large map of Cambodia. From this room, looking across the lake, we saw a small brick building in the distance. This is all that is left of Pol Pot’s home in Anlong Veng. Fittingly, it is his outhouse. Our friend Karl, from the Ivy Guest House, has the toilet seat. The only thing remaining in Ta Mok’s basement is the bowl of a western style toilet. To protect it from looters, it has been wired to the floor.

An old Chinese army van is parked in the yard, its frame slowly rusting under the trees. Everything useful has been stripped out, as if hyenas had feasted, leaving nothing but a rotting carcass. Today, the house is nestled in a grove of mango trees giving a sense of tranquility that the place does not deserve. In the distance, we heard the sounds of wedding music, a sharp contrast of the belief in the future with the horrors of the past.

The unity of the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng began to unravel as Pol Pot became more erratic and increasingly paranoid. In June 1997, Pol Pot ordered the murder of Son Sen, one of the co-founders of the Khmer Rouge. A single murder may have been acceptable but his entire family was brutally killed, their bodies rolled over by a truck. Pol Pot next turned against Ta Mok, deciding he could no longer be trusted. The two factions eventually battled it out on the streets of Anlong Veng, forcing Pol Pot to flee to the Thai border, toting suitcases stuffed with five million dollars. Before Pol Pot could move against Ta Mok, Ta Mok staged his own coup. In July, he had Pol Pot arrested and organized a show trial at this house by the lake. Pol Pot was stripped of his power and placed under arrest. Ta Mok then assumed full control. He banned smoking, women were not allowed to wear makeup, and only KR patriotic music could be played.

The Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng were finally defeated in April 1998, forcing Ta Mok, with the remainder of his troops, to flee to the Thai border. A year later, March 1999, he was lured back to Anlong Veng and arrested in the market. He was imprisoned in Phnom Penh and instead of being brought to trial in a timely manner, his trial was continuously postponed. Eventually, he died in his bed in a prison hospital. The Butcher’s last words to his lawyer: please inform the world I have never killed anyone.

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