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Ta Mok

Ta Mok

From Ta Mok To Colonel Kurtz


Recent reports from Cambodia claim that Ta Mok, the much-feared Khmer Rouge Chief-of-Staff who is also known as "the Butcher", has surrounded himself with a special bodyguard of thirty hand-picked fighters. Strangely, all are from non-Khmer ethnic minorities, and all are female. Are we witnessing a Khmer Rouge re-run of Apocalypse Now? Or are the explanations more mundane?

Conrad's original Heart of Darkness, presided over by the murderous figure of "Mr Kurtz", is set in the depths of Central Africa. Most people, however, may be more familiar with Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola's cinematic adaptation, where "Colonel Kurtz" – unforgettably portrayed by the monstrous, corpulent figure of Marlon Brando – is transferred from the Congo to Cambodia. Here, on the upper reaches of the Drang River in the remote north-east, Kurtz has set up a private, blood-soaked kingdom amidst the sweating stones of ruined Khmer temples and limpid jungle vines. Attended only by primitive minority peoples and a solitary, half-mad foreign correspondent (Denis Hopper), he acts out a self-appointed role of despot-warlord, dispensing death without discrimination to Viet Cong and US servicemen alike.

If, in real life, there never was a Colonel Kurtz – in the sense of a crazed Caucasian renegade on the upper reaches of the Drang River – it is a strange irony that the territory he was supposed to occupy belonged, at that time, to the nascent Khmer Rouge. Here, in the rain forests of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri provinces, Pol Pot and his comrades had taken refuge from the Lon Nol regime, and were beginning their strange experiment in total, collectivist, agrarian revolution. Turning their backs on Phnom Penh – characterised by KR ideologues as "the great whore on the Mekong" – they abandoned urban society as hopelessly corrupt, and took refuge in the remotest reaches of the country, as far from city life as possible.

The KR [more properly, the Communist Party of Kampuchea] took the landmark decision to embark on an armed struggle in January, 1968 – just before the Tet Offensive in neighbouring Vietnam. Shortly thereafter the KR leadership – including Saloth Sar, subsequently to become better known as Pol Pot, and other senior figures – began operations in Ratanakiri, in regions inhabited by non-Khmer upland minorities such as the Brao, the Tapuon and the Jarai. These people, traditionally looked down on by the Khmer and known by the derogatory catch-all term phnong, or "savages", were of great interest to the KR leadership (itself largely of urban background) for their knowledge of the jungle, survival skills, and legendary prowess as hunters. They were, moreover, "poor and blank" – in Maoist terms, ideal vessels for KR indoctrination. Finally, they are said to have shown great obedience and dedication to authority.

According to Cambodia specialist David Chandler, after the Khmer Rouge victory of April 17, 1975 (the dawning of the infamous "Year Zero"), Pol Pot claimed to have derived revolutionary inspiration from these upland hill tribes. They were 'people who had no private property, no markets and no money. Their way of life corresponded to the primitive communist phase of social evolution in Marxist thinking'. In 1971, after eight years in the jungle, KR ideologue Ieng Sary commented in Beijing that the movement's tribal followers "may be naked, but they have never been colonised". Still later, at a lecture in Phnom Penh in 1976, he characterised the Brao and their fellows as "faithful to the revolution, not commercially oriented, and possessing class hatred".

All this stands in sharp contrast to the usual KR treatment of minorities. Whereas lowland groups like the Vietnamese, Cham Muslims, Chinese, Thai and Lao were systematically persecuted and subjected to policies amounting to genocide, the Khmer Loeu, or "Upland Khmer" like the Brao, Jarai and Pear, were generally well treated and absorbed, wherever possible, into the ranks of the revolution. Even before the communist seizure of power in 1975, many upland tribal people already served the KR leadership as special cadre, messengers and bodyguards.

Some indication of the position of trust attained by these tribal minorities – and of the culture shock caused to ordinary Khmers on seeing "savages" bearing AK47s in the midst of the victorious communist forces – can be gleaned from contemporary accounts of the KR seizure of power. Thus Peang Sophi, a factory worker in Battambang, recalls that the peasant soldiers who occupied his city were 'real country people, from very far away. Many of them had never seen a city, or printed words. They held Cambodian texts upside down, pretending to puzzle them out'. Still more suggestive of KR tribals is an account by Dith Pran (of Killing Fields fame), who comments on KR troops entering his village in Siam Reap: "They didn't even look like Cambodians, they seemed to be from the jungle, or a different world'.

It is not clear to this writer whether the elusive, one-legged KR commander Chhit Chhoeun – better known by the nom-de-guerre of Ta Mok, or "Grandfather Mok" – employed specially trusted tribal cadre in his south-eastern power base at this time; the area in question, around Takeo and Kampot, is far from the tribal uplands of Ratanakiri or the Cardamom Mountains. It is known, however, that as early as 1975 "Brother No. 1" – Pol Pot himself – was protected by two special bodyguards, both tribal people who could speak very little Khmer. Under these circumstances, Ta Mok's choice of non-Khmer tribal minorities for his special bodyguard seems more predictable than extraordinary. The KR leadership, paranoid – and with increasingly good reason – has relied on such trustworthy followers for decades.

Yes, but... what of the fact that Ta Mok's bodyguard are all women? Isn't this an indication of Kurtzian paranoia at "the butcher's" supposed current headquarters near the northern settlement of Anglong Veng? In fact, Ta Mok's female entourage seems rooted in the long past of regional tradition. Thus, according to Southeast Asia specialist Anthony Reid, the God-Kings of Angkor surrounded themselves with as many as five thousand women, whilst Sultan Iskandar Muda maintained three thousand in his palace at Aceh – a mere handful, it is true, when compared with the ten thousand kept by Sultan Agung of Mataram. At both Aceh and Mataram, specially-trained corps of female guards were maintained for the rulers' protection, whilst Sultan Al-Mukammil of the former state (1584–1604) employed a woman as the commander of his navy.

No doubt Ta Mok knows nothing of these arcane historical facts, just as he probably doesn't read Conrad or watch Coppola. What he clearly does know, however – perhaps intuitively – is that (in the words of the sagacious Professor Reid): 'There appears to be no evidence that the confidence rulers placed in these women was ever betrayed by murder, as happened frequently at the hands of males'. To put it simply, Ta Mok trusts his tribal women, and history has yet to prove him wrong. Besides – to end on an appropriately Kurtzian note – they are probably better at preparing liver than the Khmer Rouge men.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by Pictures From History – © CPA Media