chhey teal village, Takeo province – The story coming out of this rural southern Cambodia province last week seemed eerie and implausible—truckloads of soldiers and hired laborers burrowing into old Khmer Rouge-controlled land in the deep of night, looking for Ta Mok’s gold.
But a nighttime, covert search for gold near a pagoda here indeed occurred, and at least some authorities and monks believe family members of the jailed Khmer Rouge commander may have ordered the excavation. Others say that the dig was ordered by high military officials.
Laborers, guarded by armed soldiers from Phnom Penh, began digging up a decades-old cemetery near Chhey Teal last week searching for about 100 kg of gold that is supposed to be buried there, a monk from Chhey Teal pagoda said Monday.
Alerted to the digging by local authorities, Sao Sokha, national military police commander of operations, ordered military police Monday to arrest anyone who continued digging at the site.
On Monday the worksite—located a couple hundred meters away from the pagoda—looked like little more than a roughly-tilled field, pitted in several places by deep, water-filled holes and littered with trash.
Sao Sokha said soldiers had been involved in the digging but he did not know if Ta Mok could be connected to the gold rush.
But a monk, who asked not to be named, said the diggers were led by an unknown man who allegedly has connections to Ta Mok’s family. Chhin Sithan, general staff of military police in Takeo, also identified the excavation leader as an assistant to Ta Mok. The monk and several local officials interviewed Monday said nothing of value has yet been found on the land, which during the late 1970s was paved over and used as a parking lot for Khmer Rouge military vehicles.
At the least, Sao Sokha and several other officials said, those involved were guilty of destroying a cemetery—a move that has outraged five families with relatives buried there, including National Assembly member Nin Saphon.
Perhaps more damaging, those who ordered the digging are forcing the memory of Ta Mok’s Khmer Rouge record on the public conscience as Cambodia tries to reconcile with its brutal past.
“This is a psychological attack to disturb society,” Sao Sokha said Monday. “It is making a bad political atmosphere.”
The monk said he and other villagers were prevented from going to the site, being told by the guards to stay on a road about 50 meters away from the digging. According to the monk, the worksite was watched over by 20 soldiers, 20 local police and about 10 military police.
The digging stopped Sunday but the monk was told the laborers would return again Thursday to continue looking for the gold.
Tim Sovatha, chief monk at Chhey Teal pagoda, said none of those at the site could produce official documentation giving them permission to dig there. He also said that the laborers were guarded in part by some ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers from the Thai border.
Pal San, first deputy governor or Takeo province, acknowledged the dig but said Monday he also was prevented from visiting the worksite by the guards.
Ta Mok’s attorney, Benson Samay, said Tuesday he has asked his client about the gold and is convinced it does not exist.
“He has nothing more than the bananas he is eating,” said Benson Samay, who will likely go unpaid for representing Ta Mok.
“Even if he had one kilogram of gold, I should be the first in line to get it. But I don’t believe this, it is a rumor and a joke.”
Benson Samay said.
While they also doubted the rumor that Ta Mok’s family members or former staff are involved with the dig, Second Deputy Provincial Governor Lay Sokha and Chhouk Kim Heng, deputy judiciary police chief for Takeo province, did say it could be traced to senior Royal Cambodian Armed Forces officials.
“High generals in Phnom Penh gave the order to dig,” Chhouk Kim Heng said. “But for them to deny this is so easy.”
Though he acknowledged his police officers were present at the worksite, Chhouk Kim Heng said they were only investigating the digging, which he said will prove unsuccessful.
“I don’t believe there is any gold. If they find even a little I will give [the laborers] my car,” Chhouk Kim Heng said.
And even if gold is found, Chhouk Kim Heng said it would belong to provincial authorities rather than those who discovered it.
“They have to keep the gold in the province. I have 1,000 police. They only have 30 or 50 soldiers. I am not afraid,” Chhouk Kim Heng said.
Chhuok Kim Heng has blamed regional and local military officials for the digging, but Chhin Sithan and Kang Sam Oeun, commander of the sub-military region of Takeo province, both denied involvement.
Both said they will also prevent continued digging on the land. Chhin Sithan said his military police officers were at the worksite, but like Chhouk Kim Heng, he said his officers were only investigating the digging.
(Additional reporting by Kelly McEvers)