Ta Mok - at a glance
Name (alias): Chhit Choeun (alias Ta Mok and Ngon Kang)
Before joining maqui: rice farmer in family home in Tram Kak district, Takeo province.
When joined the maqui: Left home to join the Issaraks in 1949, and became a leader within 12 months
Responsibilities pre 1975: Military commander and leader of Southwest Zone from 1968. Central Committee member since 1963
Group associations: old Issarak leader but always loyal to Pol Pot and the Centre. Helped forge the victory of Pol Pot and the extreme policies of the Khmer Rouge through his willingness to purge opponents of the party line. He also placed his family members throughout the communist power structure of the Southwest Zone.
Responsibilities during KR rule: Leader of SW Zone but was the pre-eminent enforcer of the Pol Pot Centre (he shared this role with Ke Pauk from the Northern Zone). He led purges of other zones on behalf of the Centre.
Death: He was the last man out of Phnom Penh when the Vietnamese army swept Pol Pot regime aside. Mok continued as a Khmer Rouge military leader until Pol Pot’s death in 1998, after which he was imprisoned until his death in July, 2006.
Ta Mok – extended biography, part 1.
Ta Mok was born in the Tram Kak district Takeo province, around 1926. This is significant because this district became the exemplary model for everything Pol Pot wanted for Khmer society. Ta Mok’s role in this is not coincidental as we will see.
He was the eldest of seven and born to middle class peasants, with a teaching mother and white collar father. Mok was in the monkhood for much of his early education in Phnom Penh. He left there in 1940 as the Japanese embarrassed the French rulers, and returned to farm the land of his birth, and later married a cousin.
Little is known of the next few years, except his wife bore a child, a daughter Khom, (who we will meet later) and then he, like many a male before him, left the family home without a trace. It was 1949, Mok was 23, and the battle was raging all around between bandits turned nationalist guerillas (the Issaraks) and a French regime very much on the back foot.
By 1949, Kiernan has Mok as the local leader of the Issaraks 1. He had to battle against other Issaraks 2 and only survived because he was the toughest and most ruthless in his district of Takeo and Kompong Speu. Mok however did not perform as well as other leaders in Kampot province, which may have given him something to prove in later years. 3
Don't meddle with Ta Mok
Mok had no military training and was supported in his work by Vietnamese Khmer Krom (Cambodians living in the Mekong delta). When the French left in 1953 Mok had 3 years of military and political struggle and a reputation as someone who killed easily and was not someone to meddle with.
With the resistance to the French officially disbanded (courtesy of the Geneva Accords following the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu), Mok returned to Phnom Penh to study and met Pol Pot, who was now at the centre of the urban communist resistance movement in the capital.
In 1963, repression from Sihanouk’s government became intense and Pol Pot headed for the northeast jungle and Mok, by then a Central Committee member, headed for Takeo and became a rival for leadership of the Southwest Zone. He took over in 1968 4, just after the Samlaut rebellion, and he would never be replaced as the most powerful man in the zone as long as the Khmer Rouge ruled.
The battle within the resistance (maquis) for policy, strategy and methodology (eg to try to reeducate or simply execute) would be fought out over the next 5-6 years and Ta Mok would be the torchbearer for Pol Pot and the Centre, and their policies. He would be opposed by the moderates – Chou Chet and Phouk Chhay especially – but would prevail.
Instigating violent purges and generating anti-Vietnamese xenophobia came naturally to Ta Mok from his first time as zone leader. As he wiped out opponents to his personal rule, so these policies came to the fore, aligning with the Centre.
1. Ben Kiernan, How Pol Pot Came to Power. (Verso, London, 1986), p 86
2. Ibid. He had to battle one Savang Vong was almost certainly a stooge of the French. His role may have been to split the insurgency and sow dissent in their ranks. A peasant interviewed by Kiernan said that Mok had few followers “but fought fiercely against Savang Vong Issaraks – he would kill ordinary people as well as those working with Savang Vong”.
3. Ibid p 201
4. Ibid p 202. The previous leader, Mar (alias Nhim), disappeared without trace in 1968 allowing his deputy, Ta Mok to take over.