It is the rumor that refuses to die: Former Khmer Rouge military commander Ta Mok stashed huge amounts of gold…somewhere.
Now the fever has infected Kampot province, where many believe three trucks loaded with gold are submerged in a lake built by forced labor under the genocidal regime.
Provincial officials recently formed a committee to investigate the claims. They say they are unfounded, but admit they don’t know for sure.
Officials say villagers there won’t stop talking about the gold—rumored to have been amassed by Ta Mok when he was in power, then hidden away when he fled advancing Vietnamese troops in 1978.
Many curious locals have visited the Stung Pae lake, located in Chumkiri district, 60 km from Kampot town in dense jungle surrounded by mountains. Some say someone has even rigged up a generator-powered pump to drain water out of the lake, but officials say that isn’t true.
The investigation team was assembled two weeks ago to find out the truth, provincial military Commander Ung Vanrith said. Police, military and provincial and district authorities joined up and visited the lake.
They lacked the resources to drain, dredge or otherwise explore the lake, but they realized it wasn’t a good idea for villagers to be poking around it.
“There are crocodiles and big snakes in the jungle near the lake,” provincial Deputy Police Chief Sun Sarin said. “We had to warn the villagers away from this dangerous place.”
Five or six policemen are now guarding the lake to keep the locals away, said Meng Suon, second deputy governor of the province.
The investigators took photos of the lake to show to curious villagers instead. The team of officials also reported its findings to the Council of Ministers and Ministry of Interior.
Although the investigation did not produce conclusive results, Meng Suon said he’s sure there’s no gold in the man-made lake, which measures about 1,500 meters by 500 meters.
“There’s no gold. It’s not true, it’s just a rumor,” Meng Suon said. “I was one of the slaves who dug the lake.”
He said hundreds of laborers were forced to dig the lake between 1973 and 1977. “Many people died from sickness and starvation building this lake for the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
Ta Mok has been detained in a Phnom Penh prison awaiting a trial for war crimes for over three years. Rumors have swirled for years that he secreted huge amounts of gold somewhere in Cambodia.
Some believe the stash lies below Ta Mok’s former house in Anlong Veng. In 1999, truckloads of soldiers and hired laborers excavated near a pagoda in Takeo province in search of it.
Officials said the rumor in Kampot started in Chumkiri and Chhuk districts but quickly spread to the whole province. It started, Ung Vanrith said, when a mysterious visitor told some villagers, “Ta Mok hid gold here when he was in power.”
Everyone has a theory, Sun Sarin said. “One old man told me that he saw Vietnamese troops beat back the Khmer Rouge troops, forcing them to drive their trucks into the lake,” he said. “But he wasn’t sure whether there were weapons or gold inside those trucks.”