Tue, 09 Mar 1999

Cambodian law catches up with 'The Butcher'

By Denis D. Gray

BANGKOK (AP): Ta Mok, the last leader of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge, exemplified the essence of this murderous movement. The one-legged general was a son of the soil, hated the Vietnamese and expressed a chilling indifference to taking life.

Dubbed "The Butcher," Ta Mok gained an unmatched reputation for ruthlessness as he purged perceived enemies when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979.

"Not only captured rebels and their families, but whole villages that had sheltered them were killed. They were driven in trucks to killing fields and hacked to death," writes Nayan Chanda in "Brother Enemy" of Ta Mok's 1978 purges in eastern Cambodia.

When the Khmer Rouge regime fell to Hanoi's troops in early 1980, Ta Mok retreated back into the jungles to fight the Vietnamese and then the government in Phnom Penh.

Unlike other top Khmer Rouge leaders, like Ieng Sary and Khieu Samphan, he chose not to defect or surrender to the Phnom Penh side. His once formidable force shrunk to a small band of followers, Ta Mok was arrested along the Thai-Cambodian border last Saturday and brought to the capital to stand trial in Cambodia.

According to a government spokesman, military prosecutors were considering which charges should be brought against the 72-year- old guerrilla chief.

Born into a peasant family in the southern province of Takeo, Ta Mok left the Buddhist monkhood at the age of 16 and joined the resistance against the French colonialists in the 1940s.

He was an early adherent to the Communist Party developed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot and at some time during his revolutionary career took the nom de guerre of Ta Mok, meaning Grandfather Mok. His real name was Chhit Choen.

In Chanda's 1986 book, Ta Mok is described as "Pol Pot's most trusted lieutenant" whose "name struck terror in the hearts of people, and his troops were the cruelest of all."

In a 1997 interview with Far Eastern Economic Review reporter Nate Thayer, Ta Mok said that his prime motivation was a better deal for Cambodia's rural people and independence from Vietnam rather than ideology.

"When I joined the Communist Party of Cambodia, I did not know what communism was. They told me the party was a patriotic one. That is why I joined the party," he said.

Unlike other senior Khmer Rouge, Ta Mok never studied abroad and developed a disdain for "intellectuals." The spartan living Ta Mok reportedly enjoyed getting his boots dirty in rice paddies and on battlefields. He lost a leg to a landmine in the early 1980s while inspecting a road project.

While there are stories of Ta Mok treating followers and ordinary farmers with kindness -- Thayer says he cut a "grandfatherly figure" -- his half-century career as a revolutionary is drenched in blood.

Executions, torture and slave labor camp conditions were rife when he headed the Khmer Rouge's Southwestern Zone from his home province of Takeo, a zone he apparently ruled like a personal freedom. A number of family members and relatives were given senior positions.

Dispatched in 1978 to root out real and suspected enemies within Khmer Rouge ranks along the border with Vietnam, he set about his task with a vengeance.

Although he has denied involvement, researchers have gathered evidence that also implicate him in at least some of the 16,000 executions carried out at Phnom Penh's notorious Tuol Sleng prison.

In 1993, United Nations peacekeepers blamed troops under his command for the slaughter of ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia including women and babies at a fishing village on the Great Lake.

In his interview with Thayer, he exhibited a visceral hatred of the Vietnamese, traditional enemies of Cambodia, and a casual nonchalance when talking about taking Vietnamese lives.

Unlike other Khmer Rouge leaders, he admitted that "hundreds of thousands" died during the Khmer Rouge era, but blamed it on his former leader Pol Pot.

Ta Mok toppled his former chief in a bloody 1997 power play and assumed leadership of the dwindling Khmer Rouge movement. Pol Pot, who Ta Mok accuses of committing crimes against humanity, died last year.

At his last base, in the northern Cambodian town of Anlong Veng, Ta Mok pursued economic development, building dams and setting up agricultural projects.

But the majority of his fighters later mutinied and joined the government, saying he ultimately failed to keep promises to improve their lives and ruled with his customary brutality.