When the Khmer Rouge pushed into Phnom Penh in April 1975, Ta Mok and his family networks were primed to unleash the networks they had put together over the last five years.
Mok himself led the attack from the south, through Takhmau. His son-in-law Soeun led the final assault on Takeo, with a large loss of life for the defenders. Another son-in-law, Khe Muth, controlled Cambodia’s only coastal port at Kompong Som (Sihanoukville) and was made commander of the new Democratic Kampuchea navy.
Within days both Mok’s sons-in-law were leading attacks on their Vietnamese neighbours, trying to steal back territory they believed belonged to Cambodia. With the Vietcong victory still three weeks away, they sensed an opportunity to strike. Phu Qoc island was shelled by the naval forces and troops landed there and on another nearby island owned by Vietnam. 1
Soeun headed for the provinces around Saigon, causing “great human and material losses to the border populations”. Both adventures were soon repelled by the new communist regime, leaving Pol Pot backtracking and explaining away the misadventure.
Some of Mok's family network in power in the Southwest Zone
Mok clearly was acting with Pol Pot’s blessing and continued to do so for the rest of the nearly four years they were in power. The rich Kandal province (Region 25) was given to Mok’s Southwest Zone, and the unproductive and barren provinces of Kompong Speu and Koh Kong were hived off to form a new West Zone, and given to a Mok rival and moderate, Chou Chet.
Mok had always been a military figure but now was a ‘peacetime’ administrator. The story of the lives of Southwest Zone inhabitants will be told elsewhere on his website. Suffice to say everything that happened here – the deaths from executions, the starvation of old and new people alike, the communal eating, the ethnic pogroms, the architecture of terror – was overseen by Mok, his family and their Khmer Rouge allies.
His role in the Pol Pot regime extended beyond his role in this zone. In 1977 in the first of the major paranoid, self destructive purges, Mok was tasked with replacing the cadres in the Northwest Zone, who were blamed for the enormous loss of life (from starvation and sickness mainly) and production caused by the policies of the Centre (Pol Pot).
He sent Southwest cadres all over Pursat and Battambang, to gather information and prepare the way for what was to come. Weeks later his troops arrived “smashing the existing cadre networks at district and village level”3
Haing Ngor in “Survival in the Killing Fields” witnessed the death of two such Northwest Zone leaders who had themselves been meting out death prior to this. The new cadres had arrived and taken them for ‘a meeting’.
“We walked down the path, wondering at the reason for the order, when suddenly we found the answer. Ahead of us, in a clearing, was a pit filled with slowly burning rice husks. Chev (the ex KR leader) hung over the pit with his wrists tied to a tree branch above. Rice husks covered him to his chest but we could see where he had been stabbed and slashed by the knife.4
This was repeated in the North Zone and later in the Eastern Zone in 1978 as the regime began its death spiral. The end came too late for tens of thousands of Vietnamese, Chams, KR troops loyal to the local zone leader So Phim, and villagers who died at the hands of Centre troops commanded by Mok and his fellow ‘butcher’ Ke Pauk.
Mok was the first Vice President of the regime, and rose to be one of the top 3 or 4 brothers. When the Vietnamese invaded in December 1978, Pol Pot gave him the task of defending the capital, but he quickly saw the hopelessness of the task and fled to his base at Mount Aural (Kampong Chnang province).
This video shows Ta Mok in 1998, at the place where the Khmer Rouge finally disbanded
Ta Mok stayed loyal to Pol Pot until just before the latters death in 1998, when Mok took over and imprisoned him in the hideout in the remote Thai border country. Mok had fallen out over a deal with the government, which Pol Pot did not want to pursue. Mok himself was jailed and he died in July, 2006 before any court could try him for his deeds.
- Ben Kiernan, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79, 2nd Ed, Silkworm, Bangkok, 2002, p 104
- Ibid, p 169
- Philip Short, Pol Pot: The History of a Nightmare, (John Murray, London, 2004), p 369.
- Haing Ngor, Survival in the Killing Fields. (Carroll & Graf, New York, 2003), p 362