Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Ta Mok: An obituary

What was he like, as a child? Was he loved once? Do his children mourn him?
The Economist: Ta Mok

Aug 3rd 2006

Ung Choeun (“Ta Mok”), the last surviving leader of the Khmers Rouges, died on July 21st, probably aged 80...

... His name, “Ta Mok”, meant “respected grandfather”. Villagers mourned him because they said he had brought prosperity and work to their poor forests. He claimed the same. Under his authority, especially in the south-west of Cambodia where he had been zone secretary in the communist Khmer Rouge days, roads, dams and bridges sprang up everywhere, and bright green rice fields stretched to the horizon.

Yes, Ta Mok built dams. They were erected in the late 1960s and 1970s by thousands of slaves. These people had never done hard labour before. They were doctors, teachers, writers, scientists, forcibly evacuated from the cities with whatever they could carry, made to live in barracks and worked for 12-14 hours a day. Their food was rice, which at one point fell to 150 grams a day, or rice gruel, or watery soup of banana stalks. If they did not die of disease, starvation or exhaustion, they might be killed for reluctance or dissent, or for wearing glasses. Between executions and deaths from aggravated causes, almost a quarter of Cambodia's population—1.7m people out of 7m—died between 1975 and 1979, when the Khmers Rouges were in power.

Ta Mok denied that there was blood on his hands. Towards the end of his life, as he awaited a long-delayed trial before a UN-Cambodian court on charges of genocide, he asked his lawyer to tell the world that he had never killed anyone. Technically, this may have been true. The killings he ordered in the south-western zone were done in the deep jungle, where he never saw them. Those he master-minded for Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, when he was one of his senior advisers and later his army chief, were more like mob massacres in which no general needed to intrude...

... As early as the 1950s his cruelty was notable, and noted. So was his distrust. He saw traitors everywhere, and more as the years went on. Not only his party rivals, but ordinary people too, became CIA agents, lackeys of the Thai government, agents of the Vietnamese: those neighbour-countries, especially, being threats to the Khmer Rouge regime. He made the peasants in his zone wear black clothes, the better to control them.

... Ta Mok, born a peasant and with no fancy French education, talked of himself as one of the “lower brothers” at the grassroots, doing the hard revolutionary work. But he enjoyed the material rewards. He put his family—brothers, sons, daughters, in-laws—into party jobs, and built himself a fine red-brick headquarters in the middle of a lake.

In power, his basic, crude advice often cut through the jargon of the other cadres. Phnom Penh was cleared out and sacked in 1975, with the deaths of 20,000 people, largely because Ta Mok condemned his colleagues as “layabouts”. The year before, in Oudong, he had cleansed the old royal city of its 30,000 residents and burned it to the ground. The people were marched away to an uninhabited region in which they could build the new Cambodia.

After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, Ta Mok kept on fighting for two decades. By the end of that time, though crippled by a landmine, he was the movement's leader. He had argued with Pol Pot, and seized power. The former leader died in 1998, in his custody, as both men fled farther into the northern mountains...
The writing is cold and restrained. The deeds must tell the tale, curses have no power here. I do not know how Ta Mok was made, but in a world of billions there must be hundreds such. Men mostly, with minds of malice and hate -- but for power they would be Ta Mok.

See also: Robespierre.

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