anlong veng – For years the multi-level wooden home situated here on man-made wetlands sheltered the Khmer Rouge’s last and final holdout, Ta Mok. When the infamous commander took to the jungle in 1998 to fight government troops, the house was looted and rummaged by soldiers and journalists until all traces of him disappeared.
Now, the eerie building might go through yet another transformation, into a memorial of the man also known as “The Butcher.”
Local officials here in the Khmer Rouge’s last stronghold say they are raising funds to construct a museum dedicated to Ta Mok—much like their counterparts in Pailin, who recently proposed a Khmer Rouge “war museum” of tanks and artillery they had confiscated from government soldiers.
What would make this one unique, however, is that it would be dedicated to the work of one man, and quite a controversial one at that.
“Whether good or bad, all people must know the history,” said Yim Phem, who commands RCAF Division 23 here. “We have to do it; it’s our history.”
During the Khmer Rouge reign from 1975 to 1979 that resulted in the deaths of more than 1 million Cambodians from starvation, overwork and political torture, Ta Mok ran the country’s brutal Southwest Zone. Researchers believe he was third in the regime’s national security hierarchy, after Pol Pot and Son Sen—which could mean he will face a UN-government tribunal in the coming years for violating international law.
After the regime’s fall in 1979, Ta Mok took to the jungle to lead Khmer Rouge forces as they fought for years against government troops. By the time most rebel forces were defecting to the government in late 1998, Ta Mok was the last holdout, a fugitive along the Thai-Cambodian border surrounded by a small band of loyalists.
Since his arrest in March 1999, little has been heard about Ta Mok. He now sits in a Phnom Penh military prison and is allowed no visitors, while former Khmer Rouge rebels who abandoned him during those final days thrive here on a new openness to development.
Preak Henh, 40, is one of Ta Mok’s daughters who still lives here, eking out a living by growing rice and raising chickens. She has heard nothing about the new museum. But she said she is not surprised.
“People all say he was so fierce. But they don’t know that he could laugh and joke with his grandchildren, too,” she said.
To her, the recent events in her father’s life mean the end of an era here in Anlong Veng, where people from all over the country are moving to set up shop in an area that for so long had neither contact nor commerce with the rest of the country.
Authorities said once true development reaches here—for instance, the near-complete road that now links it to Siem Reap town—tourists will flock to the museum.
“Tourists will come. Everybody wants to know what Ta Mok did during his control,” said commander Yim Phem, who also led the defection against Ta Mok.
Both Ta Mok’s supporters and his detractors believe in the project, said Ta Mok’s former right-hand man, Kem Them, now deputy commander of RCAF’s Region 4.
“All around the world, leaders make mistakes. But then after their defeat, their lives are displayed for the new generation, and we learn from their lives,” he said.
Yet one Phnom Penh-based tourism official said the project is not only myopic, but a public relations nightmare for a still-struggling Cambodia.
“Who is he, outside of Cambodia? I don’t think there is any reason to honor him,” said So Mara, secretary-general of the National Tourism Authority of Cambodia.
“This is not the Cambodia we want to show to tourists. This is a very bad picture of Cambodia. We want them to see a peaceful and friendly country, where everyone loves each other—not this dark side that we would rather forget.”
Ke Pauk, the Khmer Rouge commander of the Northwest Zone from 1975-79 who was allied with Ta Mok until defecting to the government in 1998—who also could face a tribunal—says no butcher deserves a museum.
“They can not make this for him. He’s a killer,” said the aging rebel from his home in nearby Siem Reap.
“Besides, that is not only the house of Ta Mok. It is the house of the people who worked hard to build it. Everything in Anlong Veng, the bridge, the hospital, all gets credited to Ta Mok. But what about the people? Why not dedicate it to them?”