The Veil of Secrecy is Lifting On the Last Days of the Khmer Rouge
Anlong Veng Town, Oddar Meanchey province — In the end, the fierce one-legged warrior who presided over so many battles, who ordered so many attacks, who oversaw so much terror in the name of Khmer nationalism, was captured unarmed, outside his own country in the jungles of Thailand.
Ta Mok, the last defiant Khmer Rouge leader, placed himself voluntarily in government custody about one year ago not far from here.
Those who remained loyal to the notorious rebel virtually to the end claim he knew he faced prison, yet wanted to bring peace to his followers.
Some of his own former soldiers who helped capture him believe he hoped, almost to the last moment, that he would not go to jail. Ta Mok, they say, was lured by a false offer of amnesty.
Whatever the truth, the veil of secrecy that has long enshrouded this last Khmer Rouge stronghold is lifting, one year after the end of the decades-old movement that almost destroyed Khmer culture, killing more than 1 million people and helping make Cambodia one of the world’s poorest nations.
Today those who helped lure Ta Mok into government hands, those close to the 1997 murder of movement co-founder Son Sen and the ensuing Ta Mok-ordered arrest of Pol Pot, ordinary villagers, and commanders who led the crippling final mass defection here, are retelling their version of events.
And in those accounts, new details are emerging about the final days of the Khmer Rouge.
Mass Defection Splits Leaders The beginning of the end, say those living here at Pol Pot’s last headquarters, was the defection of the northwestern towns of Pailin and Phnom Malai to the government in 1996. It was immediately apparent that the loss of the gem-and-timber-rich territory would cripple the Khmer Rouge financially. The psychological blow of losing some 15,000 loyal soldiers and Khmer Rouge civilians, as well as former deputy premier Ieng Sary, was also significant.
But many here now say it was the political consequences inside the Khmer Rouge power structure that were the most devastating.
It had been almost 20 years since the Cambodian communist movement had experienced such a traumatic split. This rupture, like the purges in 1978 that resulted in mass desertions to Vietnam, would alter the course of Khmer Rouge history.
The trouble started with an order that came down to the border trading towns in 1996, residents of the two towns and officials here say.
Longtime defense minister Son Sen ordered Pailin and Malai to relinquish control of all private property, including motorbikes, cows, trucks, and saw mills, to the Khmer Rouge organization, they say.
The directive caused an uproar and escalated tensions between the movement’s headquarters in Anlong Veng and Pailin, its most important strategic stronghold to the west.
Former Khmer Rouge general Ke Pauk, a senior subordinate of Son Sen and once ranked sixth in the movement’s hierarchy, claimed in two interviews in mid-February that Son Sen acted on his own without Pol Pot’s approval, but most other Anlong Veng officials and genocide researchers say Son Sen was acting on behalf of Pol Pot.
At first, most believed the problem could be resolved, said Ke Pauk who was in Anlong Veng at the time. Pol Pot ordered his most prominent followers Ta Mok, Son Sen and Nuon Chea to go to Pailin and Malai and negotiate a compromise.
The three failed in their mission.
“Ta Mok did not solve the problem. On the contrary, he made a small problem a big problem,” Ke Pauk said, sitting outside his Siem Reap home.
Suong Sikoeun, an official at the foreign affairs ministry during the Democratic Kampuchea regime, agreed, saying Ta Mok did not negotiate when he visited Malai. “He only said he supported Son Sen and was stubborn,” Suong Sikoeun recalled in an interview in March at his Malai home.
Furthermore, some ex-Khmer Rouge who stayed with the movement until the last waves of defections in late 1998 and 1999, said in recent weeks that Son Sen’s directive was a justified response to Ieng Sary’s inability to account for up to $10 million in rebel funds, allegedly swindled by Thai businessmen.
However, others who defected in 1996 said the order was a strong-arm attempt by Pol Pot’s clique, isolated in Anlong Veng, to reestablish authority over rebel settlements near trading routes to Thailand, where the quality of life was better compared to jungle bases.
Whatever the differences, they were intractable.
The final split occurred at a July 1996 meeting in Phnom Malai, 80 km north of Pailin on the Thai border, military analysts say. Present were Ta Mok; Ieng Sary; Y Chhien, the former commander of guerrilla division 415 and now Pailin governor; and others.
Ieng Sary and Y Chhien, joined by division 450 commander Sok Pheap, led Pailin and Malai away from the rest of the movement in August. Three months later, they went over to their long-time foes, officially joining the government in Phnom Penh.
At the time of the August rupture, clandestine Khmer Rouge radio denounced Pailin chief Ieng Sary as a traitor and accused him of losing millions of the movement’s dollars that had been provided by the Chinese government between 1985-91.
“He has been cutting down trees and selling logs to make big profits for himself….He has helped the two-headed government with strategy and brought them to attack our bases in Pailin and Malai,” said a female announcer, refering to Phnom Penh authorities led by first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and second prime minister Hun Sen.
The extraordinary rebel radio broadcast attacking one of the movement’s highest leaders signaled to the world that Ieng Sary had fallen out of favor with the Khmer Rouge nerve center.
Indeed, Ieng Sary and Pol Pot’s brothers-in-law who studied Marxist-Leninist theory together in Paris in the 1950s, helped bring order to the Cambodian communist movement in Phnom Penh beginning in 1956, and spearheaded the 1975-79 Democratic Kampuchea regime had parted ways.
The fighting began almost immediately.
In interviews last year in Ieng Sary’s stronghold of Pailin, former Khmer Rouge fighters recalled being summoned to a cave by their commanders during the standoff that summer in 1996 and told that Ta Mok planned to kill their leader Y Chhien.
“Ta Mok came here and tried to destroy us,” Ieng Vuth, Ieng Sary’s son and Pailin’s first deputy governor, said in March 1999.
According to Huth Bo, 35, who was a company commander based in Pailin, Ta Mok began to move units from other regions, bringing in artillery and laying mines in an area near Pailin known as Zone 250. Y Chhien convened a meeting of local commanders and asked them: “Do you want to follow Ta Mok, or do we find our own way and survive?” Huth Bo recalled.
The commanders took a vote and decided to fight, Pailin residents said last year. Y Chhien came to the front lines and took half his troops to fight Ta Mok, leaving the rest in defensive positions to oppose government forces, Huth Bo said. “Everybody agreed we should fight Ta Mok,” he said.
Others had to choose sides. Troops loyal to Son Sen’s brother Ny Khorn, based between Malai and Pailin at Phnom Dei at Sampov Loun district, supported Ta Mok and Son Sen.
While Ke Pauk claimed he had 1,000 fighters, Tep Kunnal, a member of the Khmer Rouge’s foreign ministry and associate of Pol Pot in recent years, said 250 was closer to the truth.
Whatever the force, it was outnumbered and out-gunned by the Pailin units supporting Ieng Sary and Y Chhien and defending their home terrain. Ny Khorn’s troops were subdued.
Pailin officially joined the government Nov 6. It was hailed as a milestone by Phnom Penh in its taxing 20-year fight against the Khmer Rouge. Hun Sen visited Pailin under heavy security and celebrations lasted for several days.
Ny Khorn finally joined the government, along with brother Son Chhum and Ta Mok son-in-law Meas ‘Ta’ Muth, in December 1996. The three had been captured in October and held captive in Pailin by Y Chhien for several months until they agreed to pledge loyalty to the King and the Constitution.
Meanwhile, Ta Mok, Son Sen and Nuon Chea had remained out of the fray, fleeing to their home territory through Thailand, said Khem Them. He was one of Ta Mok’s most loyal lieutenants before defecting to the government in December 1998.
Some 200 km away at Anlong Veng, Pol Pot was furious.
He decided that harsh punishment was in order. Ta Mok, Nuon Chea and Son Sen returned to headquarters Dec 15, said Tep Kunnal, one of the foreign affairs ministry officials who was in Anlong Veng at the time, in a March interview.
“Pol Pot suspected the three were involved with Hun Sen,” Ke Pauk said. “The reason is because Pol Pot asked the three to solve the problem, so why was it not solved” Why did the situation deteriorate?
Each man was ordered to stay in his home, effectively under house arrest.
It marked the beginning of the internal leadership feud among the remaining hardliners. All except Pol Pot had channels of contact to the Phnom Penh government, military intelligence officials said, testing loyalty and fueling feelings of distrust in tight-knit Anlong Veng. Leadership responsibilities were shuffled. In the end, a shocking murder destablized the crumbling movement and balance would never again return.
Contemporary media accounts say Ta Mok led an attack in Siem Reap province in December 1996, and that he was involved in peace negotiations with the government.
Those accounts seem to conflict with the version of events described recently in Anlong Veng.
Still, Ke Pauk, Khem Them, and several others, insist Ta Mok was not allowed to leave his home for several months in late 1996 and early 1997. The timing of the detentions of Ta Mok, Nuon Chea, and Son Sen could not be pinned down some military officials here maintained they were under guard until June but others challenged those claims.
On June 9, said Ke Pauk and Khem Them, Pol Pot sent his trusted, shadowy commander So Sarouen to see Nuon Chea and Son Sen and instruct them to come to a meeting.
That was the day Pol Pot’s fate was sealed.
Instead of bringing Son Sen to a meeting, So Sarouen and his men brutally murdered the long-time defense chief, his prominent wife Yun Yat, and their entire family, according to Khem Them, Ke Pauk, and others.
Ke Pauk claims that Pol Pot simply wanted to summon the defense chief to his house and smooth things over. He says So Sarouen took matters into his own hands because of a long-standing feud between himself and Son Sen.
Khem Them, however, maintains Pol Pot ordered the murders to neutralize a powerful potential adversary who had experienced rejection in Pailin and Malai and was inching closer to Phnom Penh.
Journalist Nate Thayer attended the Ta Mok-led show trial of Pol Pot in late July 1997 and has reported much of what is known about the final days of the Khmer Rouge.
He said Pol Pot was charged in 1997 at a show trial organized by the Khmer Rouge, the so-called “people’s court” with the murder of Son Sen and “the attempted murder and detention of Ta Mok and Nuon Chea,” among other crimes.
Pol Pot, Thayer wrote in the Far Eastern Economic Review, “called a mass meeting on February 25  and had [So Sarouen and another underling] declare that new military and political leaders would be replacing Ta Mok.”
Later that year, in October, Thayer secured the only interview Pol Pot had granted in almost 20 years, and the despot admitted he had ordered the murder of Son Sen. He expressed no remorse, explaining he had evidence that his comrade of more than 30 years was conspiring against him.
It was General Nhiek Bun Chhay, then the top Funcinpec officer in the RCAF, who revealed the execution of Son Sen to the world.
“When Pol Pot’s bodyguards reached Son Sen and Son Sen resisted going, they shot him, his wife, his child, his maid, his bodyguards….[They] were killed in front of the house,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said in June 1997.
The clandestine Khmer Rouge radio station announced that Son Sen and his wife, who controlled DK propaganda and education departments during part of the Pol Pot regime, had colluded with communist Vietnam and its puppet Hun Sen.
“Communist Vietnam and its puppet Hun Sen have used their terrorist links with Son Sen and Yun Yat in order to divide and destroy the [National Assembly of Democratic Kampuchea] and the liberated zones of Democratic Kampuchea,” Khieu Samphan said on the radio.
Tep Kunnal and another former Democratic Kampuchea foreign affairs ministry official, Suong Sikoeun, said in March at their homes in Phnom Malai that the movement’s central leadership began to question Son Sen’s loyalty as early as 1992.
Neither knew details about the slaying, but Tep Kunnal, who was in Anlong Veng at the time, said Pol Pot had warned Son Sen to stop making telephone contact with operatives of Hun Sen.
Thayer reported that the movement’s leaders were deeply split before the murder about whether to make peace with the government, an option Pol Pot opposed. He said Ta Mok was already gaining strength against the aging leader, and that the murder was part of a failed purge.
Some here even say that Son Sen was hoping to broker a deal with the CPP side of the government, while Khieu Samphan and others favored the Funcinpec officers.
Not everyone believes the murder of Son Sen was related to the defection of Pailin and Malai and waning loyalty.
Some genocide researchers believe he was killed because he knew too much about the Khmer Rouge’s most sinister deeds, at a time when talk of a peace agreement was in the air and the international community was calling for a tribunal for crimes against humanity.
If he had told what he knew, top leaders would have faced prison or execution, the theory goes.
Whatever the case, the top echelons of the movement had taken two of its own, a furor was unleashed, and paranoia was spreading through its ranks.
“If he had just killed Son Sen, it would have been no problem,” Khem Them said. “But the problem is he killed his wife, his children and his grandchildren. That is very fierce.”
The grisly murder scene had been photographed, and Ta Mok launched a public relations battle, accusing Pol Pot of attempting to assassinate him as well. He used the photos to convince the villagers of Anlong Veng that Pol Pot was a traitor.
Ta Mok began to “make propaganda,” summoning village chiefs to meet with him and announcing that it was Pol Pot himself who was the traitor, Ke Pauk and Khem Them said.
Yet Ke Cheang, Ke Pauk’s daughter and a longtime Anlong Veng resident, claims Ta Mok freed himself from house arrest and began working against Pol Pot even before the murders.
“Ta Mok was detained only two months, three months at that time. And then he escaped from house arrest by asking the security guards if he could visit the people,” said Ke Cheang, who is in her 40s but who declined to reveal her position in the Khmer Rouge organization. “He never returned to the house. He collected the people. He called the people, the village chiefs, and other leaders and accused Pol Pot of treachery, and attempting to assassinate him. But the people, we didn’t believe Ta Mok’s accusations. Because the people, we knew that Ta Mok wanted power.”
It is unclear what happened next.
Some say Pol Pot ordered his troops not to fight, convinced that internal battles would further hobble the movement and that a compromise could be reached. According to this version of events, Ta Mok got the jump on Pol Pot and sent troops after the longtime leader.
Others say Ta Mok won the public relations battle with the people and, thus, lured the most fighters to his side.
The death of Son Sen sparked a series of gunfights, and battles raged in the streets for two to three days, Khem Them said.
Tep Kunnal said Pol Pot and a handful of intellectuals including Khieu Samphan, Chan Youran, Mok Ben, Kao Bun Heng and In Sopheap fled north with the radio transmitting equipment, taking refuge in the Dongrek Mountains along the Thai border.
Supporters of Pol Pot led by So Sarouen slugged it out with Ta Mok’s followers for several days but when the family of So Sarouen was captured and held hostage, Ta Mok forced Pol Pot’s top fighting loyalist to surrender, and the armed conflict was over, Khem Them said.
Ta Mok’s forces then detained intellectuals Nuon Chea, Mak Ben, Kor Bun Heng and others as hostages, Ke Pauk said, and continued their pursuit of Pol Pot.
Pol Pot soon found himself isolated and on the verge of arrest. He and his longtime deputy for years, Khieu Samphan, the public face of the Khmer Rouge, decided to flee, according to Ke Pauk, Khem Them and others.
At the time, it was widely reported that Khieu Samphan was a hostage of Pol Pot. But Khem Them, Ke Pauk and others in Anlong Veng say that was not the case. He followed Pol Pot voluntarily, they say.
The End of Pol Pot
It was Khem Them, the powerful Ta Mok loyalist, who unearthed the information that led to Pol Pot’s arrest.
He claims Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan and several bodyguards carried suitcases stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Khem Them said one of the bodyguards claimed $5 million cash was stored in five suitcases. Another five suitcases, containing an additional $5 million, were hidden in an unknown location, the guard told him.
The pair planned to escape to another country, he said. Media reports at the time detail rumors that Pol Pot was scheming to reach a third country, though they also say Nuon Chea and Ta Mok had fled, which was not the case.
Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan escaped to an area on the border called Kbal Ansom, about 10 km east of the Chrork Choam pass. Forced to flee again, they hid in caves, several sources said.
“At the time, they had five bodyguards and Pol Pot’s wife and daughter with them,” Khem Them recalled. The suitcases were from China and they were very heavy.
“But four of the five bodyguards had a plan to betray Pol Pot because they wanted the money. That’s why they listened to the radio and then they lied to Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan and said “the troops are coming, please go this way.”
Khem Them claims the four conspirators fled with the money and joined nearby units under the command of Funcinpec General Khann Savoeun. (The then-RCAF Military Region 4 commander, who just a few weeks later would be pinned against the Thai border alongside his ally Nhiek Bun Chhay with resistance forces following the eruption of violence on July 5-6 in Phnom Penh).
Khem Them says the money that had been taken from Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan was given to Nhiek Bun Chhay. But he says when he asked Nhiek Bun Chhay about the money later, he was told the general had never heard of it.
Nhiek Bun Chhay also told a reporter last month he knew nothing about the money.
Khann Savoeun, RCAF deputy commander in chief and a former resistance force commander at the Funcinpec border stronghold of O’Smach, recalled being told by Prum Su, a former Khmer Rouge leader and relative of Nhiek Bun Chhay, that “four of Pol Pot’s bodyguards” had escaped and “were bringing important things” with them. But he refused to meet the four.
“I didn’t believe Prum Su’s report,” Khann Savoeun said recently. “I thought he was making a lie to me or someone wanted to use this as a trick to ruin my reputation. I didn’t want to get involved with Khmer Rouge rebels, so I didn’t care and kept quiet.”
At the time, CPP and Funcinpec troops had already fought for several days in Battambang province, and tensions were running high between the two ruling parties in Phnom Penh. Both of which wanted rebel units to defect to them.
Khann Savoeun said he was later informed that the four were taken to Pailin by former comrades.
In any case, only one of the five bodyguards remained with Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan, a man Khem Them says was named Mr Ngeth. With $25,000 remaining, Pol Pot dispatched Ngeth to Thailand to buy food and seek help.
But Ta Mok had tipped off Thai authorities. With control of the Khmer Rouge’s resources and power firmly in his grasp, Ta Mok now held sway. Local Thai units were on the lookout, and Ngeth was quickly caught, he said.
Khem Them claims he went to pick up Ngeth at the Thai border. Ngeth revealed Pol Pot’s secret location, and Ta Mok sent army units into the jungle to bring back the fugitives, he said.
Two hundred troops were dispatched to the location with the prisoners Ngeth and So Sarouen, Khem Them said. He stayed a few meters back in a Landcruiser awaiting the arrests.
The following account of the scene, by Ke Cheang, could not be independently confirmed:
She said Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan stood up. Khieu Samphan had two pistols. He pointed one at Pol Pot and one at himself. He threatened to kill them both, and said he would do so if the troops came any closer.
He spoke to Pol Pot in English, words that none present understood. Then he told troops he would only speak to the father of his daughter-in-law, a soldier loyal to Ta Mok.
Craig Etcheson, a genocide researcher at the International Monitor Institute and longtime scholar of the Khmer Rouge, was skeptical of the account. “That doesn’t sound like the Khieu Samphan, I know,” he said.
Ke Cheang, who said she talked to several soldiers present at the arrest, claims the in-law was summoned and the weapons were put down. So Sarouen and Ngeth emerged from the jungle, and a solution seemed at hand.
According to Ke Cheang, the troops sent to arrest Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan spoke of killing Pol Pot on the way to the jungle, but upon seeing their proud former leaders bedraggled and threatening suicide, some burst into tears.
Nuon Neang Aun, Pol Pot’s cook, also said soldiers refused to carry out Ta Mok’s order to kill Pol Pot. She spoke reverently of Pol Pot and added, in an interview at Malai in March, that villagers “got on their knees and begged” Ta Mok not to kill Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan.
Khem Them could not confirm all the details of Ke Chheang’s account. But he acknowledged that he saw Khieu Samphan with a pistol.
“Khieu Samphan had one pistol but I didn’t see him point the weapon at Pol Pot. At the beginning I was not there,” he said. “One reason I stayed away and hidden was because Pol Pot did not like me and I didn’t like Pol Pot.”
Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot were very happy when they saw Sarouen and Ngeth; they didn’t know of my presence and the trap. Later I walked from the forest, and Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan were very surprised at the time.
“And then I called them, please, get in the car to go to Anlong Veng. And then I and Pol Pot [went] in one car, and Khieu Samphan in other car.”
Pol Pot was taken into custody. A show trial was arranged, attended by Thayer and publicized around the world, and he was convicted as a traitor. He lived out his final days under house arrest, not far from where he was captured.
When he died on April 15, 1998, Khmer Rouge officials said it was a heart attack. The body was cremated in the jungle before an autopsy could be conducted.
Ke Pauk, Khem Them, and leaders in Pailin last year say he died after Ta Mok stopped giving him oxygen needed for his heart condition. Some reports say he was poisoned, but they cannot be confirmed.
When asked last year if Pol Pot had been murdered, Mei Meakk, Pailin’s cabinet chief who claimed to have spoken with the tyrant during his final days, said, “Pol Pot was cremated on a bed of tires. What do you think?”
With the arrest of Pol Pot, Ta Mok became the new leader of the Khmer Rouge. But his rule would be short and unsuccessful. The former chief of staff presided over the final fall of the rebels. Today, he sits in a Phnom Penh military prison awaiting a trial for crimes against humanity.
Talk of Defection Deal RaisesTensions in Phnom Penh
While Khmer Rouge leaders were fighting in Anlong Veng, government leaders in Phnom Penh were also sparring. In the months that followed the defection of Pailin and Malai, events in the two distant towns would become inextricably linked.
The saga of Son Sen’s murder and the arrest of Pol Pot played out against the backdrop of the shocking fighting in Phnom Penh between the CPP and Funcinpec, leading some even today to question the Khmer Rouge version of why and even whether Son Sen was really killed.
Nhiek Bun Chhay placed the date of Son Sen’s murder as June 10, 1997. The revelations came just days after Funcinpec military brass announced they were close to reaching an agreement with Khmer Rouge leaders that would end the war.
The possible peace treaty raised the specter that some Khmer Rouge leaders finally could be brought before a tribunal for crimes committed during the 1975-1979 Democratic Kampuchea regime.
And just the day before Son Sen’s murder, King Norodom Sihanouk publicly ruled out pardons for Pol Pot and Ta Mok, and said he would only grant amnesty to other Khmer Rouge leaders if Cambodia’s two prime ministers insisted he do so.
Genocide researchers have identified Son Sen as a crucial link between the worst atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the leaders who served on the central committee of the communist party.
They say physical evidence implicating leaders such as Pol Pot, Ta Mok and others in enacting the policies that resulted in the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians remains scant.
But Son Sen is clearly implicated in the Khmer Rouge paper trail, according to Youk Chang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
Documents from the Tuol Sleng Prison Center, or S-21, where an estimated 20,000 were tortured and executed were sent to him and bear his signature. As the Democratic Kampuchea official with responsibility for internal security, orders for arrests and killings emanated from his office.
“Son Sen is the link to the other leaders,” Youk Chang said. “If he was called to trial, he could implicate the entire Democratic Kampuchea Central Committee.”
Former leaders and cadre interviewed in Anlong Veng insist Son Sen was murdered and that it had nothing to do with politics in Phnom Penh or any possible war crimes tribunal.
But they acknowledged political events in Phnom Penh did have a crucial impact inside the remote Khmer Rouge organization:
? Feuds over whether to end the war had long divided the movement since the Khmer Rouge had derailed the Paris Peace Agreement in 1993 by going back to war.
? Ieng Sary is said to have been sidelined from power because he opposed a return to war.
? The split was so pronounced that accusations of collusion and sympathy for royalist troops led to to the purge of scores of loyal cadre.
In the days that preceded the flight of Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot from Ta Mok and his troops, Nhiek Bun Chhay publicly identified Khieu Samphan as the man who was negotiating the peace agreement on behalf of the Khmer Rouge.
At the time, and in the weeks that followed, it was widely reported that Pol Pot was opposed to a peace deal. And in the days after his flight, Nhiek Bun Chhay said that “95 percent” of the forces in Anlong Veng were supporting the Phnom Penh government.
But Ke Pauk, Khem Them and others in Anlong Veng now maintain Pol Pot was in favor of reintegrating his troops at the time of his fight with Ta Mok, and that it was Ta Mok who opposed a peace.
Reached by telephone and during interviews on other matters in recent months, Nhiek Bun Chhay declined to discuss the final days of the Khmer Rouge, implying it remains too politically volatile an issue to discuss.
“I don’t want to comment about this,” he said once. “Because now I am in the government. It’s not like before.”
According to Khem Them, Nhiek Bun Chhay and Khieu Samphan, Ta Mok had completed plans to end the war and was to sign a peace agreement at Preah Vihear temple on July 5.
Last month, Nhiek Bun Chhay denied that.
In a May, 1998 interview, RCAF Deputy Commander in Chief and CPP standing committee member Pol Sarouen accused Prince Ranariddh and Nhiek Bun Chhay of signing a defection deal with the Khmer Rouge in the days before the CPP and Funcinpec turned their guns on each other on July 5-6 1997.
Thayer wrote that a military and political agreement between Nhiek Bun Chhay and the Khmer Rouge led by Khieu Samphan had been inked at Preah Vihear temple at the Thai border on July 4.
CPP and Funcinpec forces, long suspicious of each other, had been competing for months to win the surrendering forces of the Khmer Rouge to their side.
The pair attempted to derail the 1996 talks in Pailin, going to “secretly meet Ieng Sary and telling them that the government officers are Yuon’s servants, Yuon’s puppets,” Pol Saroeun charged in the 1998 interview, using the derogatory word for Vietnamese.
When Funcinpec announced it was on the verge of inking a deal with the hardened 4,000-strong fighting force in Anlong Veng, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen appeared clearly threatened. He condemned the talks as illegal, and warned Funcinpec to stop them.
“I’m directly charging that someone is colluding with the Khmer Rouge to undermine the government,” Hun Sen said in a speech June 16, 1997. Funcinpec, he added, “has to choose between Hun Sen, who is the second prime minister, and Khieu Samphan. Please choose one of the two.”
Tensions were on the rise between CPP and Funcinpec. On June 17, on Norodom Boulevard, bodyguards of National Police Director General Hok Lundy (CPP) exchanged gunfire with Funcinpec security guards – the most serious overt violent clash since the week of fighting in Battambang province in February.
In the weeks that followed, the two continued to disagree, with Hun Sen insisting on unconditional surrender, while Ranariddh advocated the right of Khieu Samphan to found his own political party.
On July 5, fighting broke out in the streets of Phnom Penh. CPP forces drove Funcinpec to the border, where they joined up with some Khmer Rouge units and continued a low intensity civil war for months.
The fighting was widely viewed by some Khmer Rouge as an attempt to prevent the Khmer Rouge from achieving the agreement they had hoped for, Khem Them said. And hard-line units in Samlot who had defected to the government in 1996 rebelled under the command of local warrior Im Phan and joined up with Funcinpec forces on the border.
But CPP forces routed Funcinpec in Phnom Penh and gained clear control of the country. Talk of a Phnom Penh-Khmer Rouge peace agreement was shelved. And Ta Mok continued to rule the remaining guerrillas.
Ta Mok Autocracy Leads to Mass Defection
In the isolated village of Anlong Veng, events were growing tense again.
Behind the Khmer Rouge curtain, Ta Mok began his new reign by calling a public meeting and announcing that the “black clouds are gone.” He boasted that “even the president of America could not catch Pol Pot, only Anlong Veng people could arrest Pol Pot,” Ke Pauk recounted in February.
His speech suggested that freedom was in the air. Instead, Ta Mok attempted to strengthen his power using “suppression,” according to Ke Pauk.
Ke Pauk was once among those closest to Ta Mok in the movement. But he claims he fell out of favor in 1989. His daughter says it is because he criticized Son Sen in public meetings for not providing adequate clothing to the troops. Others say he was accused of sympathy for King Norodom Sihanouk.
But the former commander still had respect for his erstwhile subordinates and the general population was wary and hungry and ripe for new leadership.
It was 1998, when smoking had been banned, when the only music allowed in Anlong Veng was the vitriolic theme song of the revolution, when women were not allowed to wear makeup, and when the people lived in continued fear of purges amidst the shifting alliances and internal turmoil.
“We lived like animals,” said one villager of the days before the defection.
The harsh new conditions contrasted sharply with the tantalizingly close end of war, derailed by CPP’s offensive against Funcinpec in Phnom Penh.
Ke Pauk decided to make a move along with several of his commanders. According to his son and daughter, the former leader had a “brother” in government-controlled Pailin, a brother who was working as an agent for Mol Roeup, a senior military adviser to Hun Sen who shortly after the July 1997 fighting became RCAF intelligence chief.
In any case, Ke Pauk conferred with his former commanders. On March 23, 1998, thousands revolted under Ke Pauk and others, and Ta Mok fled to the jungle with his most trusted underlings and a handful of intellectuals, including Pol Pot, held as captives.
But the defections continued.
Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan came over in December. Khoem Them and five other key military commanders – Khoem Nguon, who became Ta Mok’s army chief of staff, Nuon Nov, Kem Khet, Meas Muth and Im Phan came over three weeks before.
It was supposed to pave the way for the rebel chief’s eventual defection, according to Khem Them. But it didn’t turn out exactly as planned.
Ta Mok’s Capture: The End
Former rebel commander of division 980 Yim Phem, now commander of division 23, and his deputy Nuon Chroeun played a key role in arresting the rebel chief. Both defected to the government with Ke Pauk in March 1998.
Sitting at division headquarters in Anlong Veng in February, they recalled contacting Khem Them and two other men who remained loyal to Ta Mok, Khoem Nguon and Nuon Nov. Through the trio, the two, along with RCAF deputy commander in chief Chea Saran, arranged to meet Ta Mok and bring him over to the government, they said.
A meeting was arranged and they arrived at Chhorng Sangum, in Thai territory, they said. Ta Mok was there with his grandchildren.
“When we saw them, first we only talked about health and we sat there awhile,” Yim Phem said. “And looked simple and normal, not angry or anything.”
“He was not angry at us even though we were his former people and defected away from him. I couldn’t know about his heart; if he is angry at us or not. Probably he was angry, because we were his people and now we were against him.”
After chatting, Ta Mok was “invited” to Anlong Veng to “see the government,” Yim Phem said.
“And at that time, when we looked to his face, he looked very worried. We had brought with us three vehicles and more than 10 people from RCAF and went straight to Anlong Veng town,” he said. “It was a trick to trap Ta Mok. He must have known, but he had no place to go.”
A helicopter was waiting in Anlong Veng. The chieftain was whisked off to Phnom Penh, and soon placed in prison.
“I cannot really say whether he was angry or not,” Yim Phem said. “How can he be angry? He had already lost everything.”
Asked if cooperation from Thai forces helped drive Ta Mok into government hands, Yim Phem said simply, “I think you know better than me.”
“He knew that he had no chance to go to any place. The Thais were also looking for him and, in Cambodian territory, there was nothing more for him. It was only along the border, a very limited area, on which he could still stand. That’s why he had no chance against us.”
Said Nuon Chroeun, “Ta Mok has no way to escape because the Thais were also going to find him. He thought if he returned to Cambodia, it would be better than giving himself up to the Thais. I don’t know if he was tricked or not.”
Officials at the Thai Embassy declined to comment on events, or detail their level of cooperation with either government or the Khmer Rouge forces. They also declined to comment on whether Ta Mok was arrested in Thai territory.
Khem Them, who defected just two months before Ta Mok’s arrest, offered a slightly different version of events.
“There was fighting between the troops, Ke Pauk and Yim Phanna against our troops, and then we left the area. I, Nuon Nov and Ta Mok still controlled some troops.
“Later, after the fighting, I made negotiations with the government, they made contact with me and I went to Phnom Penh. That is before Ta Mok was sent to Phnom Penh.”
Khem Them said he saw top CPP generals in the capital, including Mol Roeup, RCAF deputy commander-in-chief Meas Sophea, and RCAF infrantry commander Chea Saran.
“I went to see [them] and we reached agreement. They said that they would accept us into the government and that everything in the past is forgotten.”
About Ta Mok, they agreed to accept Ta Mok and to put him in one place, in a quiet place. He would not have freedom like Khieu Samphan, Ieng Sary, Nuon Chea. They can go anywhere in the country. But Ta Mok cannot. One place in Anlong Veng, they said.
“And then I came back from Phnom Penh and talked to Ta Mok about this issue. And Ta Mok said “if I am still obstinate, the war will still continue and many people who follow him suffer.”"
“So that’s why Ta Mok told me to do whatever is the benefit for the people. He said “Even if I am in jail or killed, I will agree to go if it helps my people live in peace and be safe.”"
Khem Them said he brought Ta Mok and several of his aides from Dong Tong area to the Chrork Choam/Chorng Sangam border pass with cooperation from Thai border units. He said Ta Mok was handed over to troops under division 11 commander Uy Sopheap (CPP).
“I took Ta Mok and a few of his bodyguards to Choam and left him to stay there surrounded by many RCAF troops,” Khem Them said. “They were deployed around the area to provide security for Ta Mok; they were worried about attack from other people.
“And then I left for Phnom Penh again.”
One government intelligence source intimately involved in Ta Mok’s capture would confirm only that the rebel chief had been arrested using “military tactics.” He asked not to be named and declined to outline specifics.
Chea Mon, the top northern commander for RCAF in charge of Oddar Meanchy and Siem Reap provinces, said he was not present at the arrest but saw Ta Mok shortly afterward. He described the former rebel chief as frightened.
“He was very scared when he saw the RCAF soldiers and was sent by helicopter from Anlong Veng,” he said. “His face became very pale. He seemed agitated and restless.”
Now housed in the grassy military compound near Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Ta Mok has made no public comment nor has been been allowed to give any interviews since his incarceration began. (Additional reporting by Gina Chon and Chris Decherd)
Major figures in the Khmer Rouge movement
- SALOTH SAR (Pol Pot) – Prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea, 1976-79. Controlled Khmer Rouge until he was arrested by Ta Mok forces, convicted of treason, and placed under house arrest (July 25, 1997). Died April 15, 1998, while still in custody.
- LONG BONRUOT (Nuon Chea) – President of Democratic Kampuchea’s People’s Representative Assembly (1976-79). Placed under house arrest by Pol Pot loyalists (1996). Defected to government (December, 1998).
- KIM TRANG (Ieng Sary) – Democratic Kampuchea Deputy Prime Minister for Foreign Affairs. Removed from any real power because he opposed a return to war (1993). Pailin troops supporting him defeat forces loyal to Ta Mok (1996). Contends he received a full pardon from any prosecution, including international tribunal, from King Sihanouk (September, 1996).
- EK CHOEUN (Ta Mok) – Chief of General Staff, Khmer Rouge armed forces. Ordered by Pol Pot to settle a dispute with Son Sen in Pailin and Anlong Veng (1996). Defeated in attempt to wrest control of border areas from troops loyal to Ieng Sary and Son Sen, forced to flee to Thailand (1996). Returns to Cambodia, is allegedly placed under house arrest by order of Pol Pot. Leaves custody easily after two months and begins propaganda campaign that ultimately leads to Khmer Rouge arrest of Pol Pot (July 1997). Becomes new leader of Khmer Rouge. Driven into jungle when Ke Pauk decides to lead revolt against him (March, 1998). Arrested in Thailand and brought to Phnom Penh prison (March 7, 1999).
- SON SEN (Khieu) – Democratic Kampuchea Deputy Prime Minister for Defense. Responsible for state security. Defies Pol Pot by ordering Pailin and Malai residents to turn over all property to Khmer Rouge. Forced to flee to Anlong Veng (1996). Murdered with at least 10 family members by forces under command of Pol Pot loyalist So Sarouen (June 10,1997).
- KHIEU SAMPHAN (Hem) – President of the Democratic Kampuchea State Presidium. Allegedly started negotiating in 1997 with government for peace agreement on behalf of Khmer Rouge. Stayed with Pol Pot as Ta Mok forces took control of Khmer Rouge, eventually forced to hide in cave. Arrested along with Pol Pot (July 1997). Defected to government (December, 1998).
- KE VIN (Ke Pauk) – Deputy Chief, General Staff, Khmer Rouge Armed Forces. Responsible for mass civilian executions in Kompong Cham and Odong during the 1970s. Belonged to 50-member Khmer Rouge Central Standing Committee (1972-90). Claims he fell out of favor with leadership as far back as 1989. Led a rebellion of thousands that drove Ta Mok out of power (March, 1998).
- SO SAROUEN – Pol Pot’s highest commander and top security bodyguard. Sent by Pol Pot to see Nuon Chea and Son Sen and settle dispute. Decides instead to kill Son Sen (June 10, 1997). Sentenced with Pol Pot (July 25, 1997). Executed (March 26, 1998).
- KHEM THEM (Ta) – Senior military commander, later appointed defense minister. On behalf of Ta Mok, led the search to catch Pol Pot (July, 1997). Defected to government (December, 1998). Now a military deputy commander.
- HUTH BO – Company commander based in Pailin. Fought against the Ta Mok insurrection.
- IENG SAVATH – Son of Ieng Sary. Voiced concern that Ta Mok would destroy Khmer Rouge forces in Pailin (1996). Now first deputy governor of Pailin.
- NGETH – Pol Pot bodyguard. Sent to Thailand to get food and seek help. Instead, tipped off Ta Mok forces on Pol Pot’s location (July, 1997).
- KE CHEANG – Daughter of Ke Pauk. An Anlong Veng resident who contends her father lost power within the Khmer Rouge because he was accused of providing inadequate clothes to troops, and because of his perceived sympathies to King Sihanouk.
- MEAS MUTH – Ta Mok’s son-in-law and a top military commander. Defected to government (December, 1998).
- IEM PHAN – Former Ta Mok military commander. Defected to government (December, 1998).
- NUON NOV – Ta Mok’s economic adviser. One of Pol Pot’s jailers. Defected to government (December, 1998).
- KHEM NGUON – Ta Mok’s military chief of staff. Said he would shoot himself before he would work with Hun Sen government (Spring, 1998). Spearheaded final deal between Khmer Rouge and Hun Sen government (Dec. 4, 1998).