In April, a top military official in charge of tracking down at-large Khmer Rouge leaders said that if Ta Mok were to win his war with the Phnom Penh government, he would be “a king.”
And if he loses, he will be “a millionaire,” declared General Preap Tann.
As Ta Mok’s top policy and military aides defected Friday in what is being touted as the end of the Khmer Rouge, the latter appears likelier. Yet, the top rebel commander remains as elusive as a ghost and has reportedly amassed some $15 million from business interests in Thailand.
The challenge now for Preap Tann is to figure out how to get defecting hard-line commanders to reveal Ta Mok’s location.
“They know. They really know, but they keep quiet,” the one-star general said Monday after a press conference at the Ministry of Information.
The latest Khmer Rouge defectors—including Ta Mok’s son-in-law Meas Muth and his army chief of staff Khem Nguon—deflected journalists’ questions Monday on the whereabouts of Ta Mok.
“I don’t know where they are,” said Khem Nguon, who has spearheaded the defection negotiations, at the press conference. “Even in the city, it is difficult to find people, so it is more difficult to find him in the jungle.”
A Pailin source close to former Khmer Rouge leaders told The Cambodia Daily late last week that Ta Mok is ensconced on the border in Phnom Chhatt, an old Khmer Rouge stronghold in the far west.
Military officials insist that Ta Mok and hard-line Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan have the freedom to cross the Thai border, making it impossible for them to monitor or catch him. “They are nowhere to be found in Cambodia,” RCAF Deputy Chief of Staff Meas Sophea said Saturday.
However, Thai officials have strongly denied that there is border cooperation with rebel leaders.
In March, Ta Mok slipped away from RCAF troops who trampled the rebels’ longtime stronghold in Anlong Veng village with the help of mutinying defectors there.
On Monday, the latest defectors said they last saw Ta Mok in early May when a government offensive in northern Anlong Veng scattered remaining hard-line forces.
He is believed to be accompanied by Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea. They are only three standing committee members from Democratic Kampuchea—the 1975-78 regime in which more than 1 million Cambodians are believed to have died—to remain alive and still against the government.
One of Ta Mok’s former bodyguards said in May that the one-legged military chief has a backdoor escape route to Laos. Some reports have alleged Ta Mok is holding Khieu Samphan hostage.
The Pailin-based source over the weekend said that Khieu Samphan is still “in the hand of Ta Mok” and that the trio are hunkered down on Phnom Chhatt, or Umbrella Mountain, a stronghold used by the Khmer Rouge in the 1980s.
The mountain, situated exactly on the Thai border, is 30 km west of Thma Puok town in Banteay Meanchey and 40 km northwest of the border town of Poipet on National Route 6.
A military analyst on Sunday said he believes the trio are in Thailand’s Siskhet province just over Cambodia’s northern border in order for Ta Mok to monitor his oil and gas interests in that part of the country.
“If they were in Cambodia, the Cambodians would have gone and got them,” the analyst said, adding that the threesome are likely the benefactors of “locally based” help from Thai border officials and business contacts without the civilian government in Bangkok’s knowledge.
Ta Mok has some $15 million in Thai banks, according to Cambodian military officials and defecting Khmer Rouge commanders.
More than 2,000 hard-line rank-and-file mutinied in March, complaining Ta Mok had usurped their cross-border business interests and established brutal internal policies since he seized control of the movement from Pol Pot in June 1997.
(Additional reporting by Kimsan Chantara)