Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Chhit Choen - alias Ta Mok

There are not many touristic highlights in Takeo. But one is the former villa of Ta Mok, right by the lake with a rather nice view overlooking Takeo. Now you're going to ask - who the hell is Ta Mok? Good question. What I know is that he was one of the Khmer Rouge bad guys, but that's basically it... so I did a little research: born in 1926, Chhit Choen trained as a Buddhist monk in Phnom Penh. During the 1940s he was an active opponent of both French colonial rule and the Japanese occupation. Joining the Cambodian Communist Party, he rose to become a member of its Central Committee, and commanded its forces in the south-west of Cambodia.

Under the alias Ta Mok - uncle Mok - served as the Khmer Rouge's chief of staff. With Pol Pot at its head, the four years of Khmer Rouge government from 1975-1979 saw almost two million people murdered. The campaign against so-called "parasites" eliminated intellectuals, city-dwellers and disabled people. Wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language was a common death sentence and mass genocide became the order of the day. Ta Mok, who commanded the army as of 1977, was the driving force behind a number of purges and quickly earned the nickname 'Butcher'.

Late in 1978, Vietnam decided to act. Its forces invaded Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge fled. Ta Mok went north, becoming supreme military commander of the remnant forces.

More than 20 years later, Ta Mok was finally arrested - on 6 March 1999 inside Thai territory. Two days earlier, the United Nations had published a report which recommended the establishment of an International Criminal Court. Transferred to Phnom Penh, Ta Mok was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. But he died in prison in July 2006. Had he lived long enough, he would have been a key defendant in the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders, which just began a few weeks ago at the end of 2007.

The tribunal however remains a touchy issue and hardly makes it into mainstream Cambodian media. Ta Mok's house in Takeo is a dilapidated villa hardly worth the visit. No sign with explanations, no little museum retracing the life of the butcher. And this will probably not change anytime soon.


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