Ta Mok extended biography, part two.
Preparing for power (1968-75)
Before the coup in 1970, the communist movement struggled to win the support of the peasants. KR leaders in the Southwest Zone lived a physically tough and deprived life in the high country where Tram Kak district (Takeo) meets Chuuk and Angkor Chey districts (Kampot). Repression was severe as Lon Nol sought to destroy the movement and the US air force began their bombing campaign in the zone.
Ta Mok’s power, and that of the Khmer Rouge, blossomed with the Lon Nol coup and Sihanouk’s alliance in the united front (FUNK). The popularity of Sihanouk and the enormous destruction of the bombing, drove recruits into the arms of the resistance. Initially this was a pluralist movement with Sihanoukists, Vietminh allied cadres and CPK communists all vying for control of the FUNK.
In such conditions nobody could match Ta Mok. He gradually eliminated the Sihanoukists, and then the Vietminh cadres from all positions of power in the villages. The execution of Hanoi trained cadres began in this period as they arrived back from North Vietnam.
In 1971 several visitors to the zone described the clear tension between Ta Mok and the other zone leaders1. Mok had to battle those men for control of the communist movement. He acted with Pol Pot’s consent in firstly eliminating Prasith2, a popular and moderate CPK leader in Koh Kong (Region 11).
A family affair
Mok’s influence spread in the zone due to his placing of family members in positions of power in the zone structures. His first daughter Khom, married a man called Khe Muth who became military leader of the 3rd Zone Brigade in 1972. Khom took her husbands place as head of Tram Kak District and was followed by Moks brother-in-law after she died of sickness in 1977. Altogether 13 of Moks family moved up the ranks and ensured his ‘line’ was implemented in full.
The clip here shows Ta Mok talking to peasants almost certainly around the time before 1975. It was in such gatherings that he hammered out his iron-fisted and violent rule
In 1972 he was reported as speaking to a mass rally of 3,000 monks in Kompong Chnang where he told them to defrock, join the rebel army, and under no circumstances feed or house any Vietnamese soldiers.3 By then, mentioning Sihanouk’s name in anything other than for public consumption drew sharp rebukes from Mok.
Around this time the Cham (muslim) population in some parts of the zone (not in Region 15 under Non Suon) started to be repressed, initially by being forced to dress the same and the women to have their hair cut short.
In 1973 Mok and the moderates were clashing over what to do with Lon Nol soldiers who were captured. He rounded up several hundred “dissidents” from across the zone and, after a short period of extreme hard labour, executed them.4 Mok became irate when Chou Chet and others suggested they be reeducated.
In March 1974, Ta Mok and Ke Pauk (a fellow hardliner from Northern Zone) led a successful assault on Oudong, the old capital north of Phnom Penh. They marched 20,000 people out from the city and killed any schoolteachers and government officials. They razed the city to the ground, destroying the symbols of the old order (royalty). Only 1 in 5 ever returned5 It was Ta Mok who gave the order to evacuate the town.
Interestingly at the same time as Oudong was being overrun, Kampot was under siege from KR forces. They came within less than 1.5 km from the town centre but failed to capture it when the town was reinforced by troops, brought in by boat from Phnom Penh, via Ream. Why was Ta Mok, the SW warlord not leading his troops in Kampot?
When victory was nigh, in April 1975, it was son-in-law Khe Muth who lead the assault from the south, while a son, Chong, captured Takeo from government forces. Khe Muth took over Kompong Som and was put in charge of the DK navy.
- This included Ith Sarin, mentioned elsewhere, and even a senior cadre, Vorn Vet who noted the animosity. He said (in his Tuol Sleng confession in 1978) that Non Suon was prepared “to fight Ta Mok” Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79, 2nd Ed, Silkworm Bangkok, 2002, p 197.
- Ben Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power. (Verso, London, 1986), p 246. Locals called Prasith’s (Region 11 and Zone Deputy Party Secretary) cadres and officials the “Free Khmer Rouge” in contrast to Ta Mok. There was a ‘liberal attitude to travel and trade’ and a good relation with the people. This ended when Prasith was executed.
- Kiernan, ibid, p 246
- Ibid, p 357
- Ibid, p 384