As the four top living leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime appear in court together for the first time today, they will be sharing the dock with a group of men and women who cannot be tried.
More than any international case since the Nuremberg trials, the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s prosecution of Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, 84, Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, 85, Social Action Minister Ieng Thirith, 79, and head of state Khieu Samphan, 79, revolves around a cohort of dead regime leaders who will be nearly as present in court as the elderly and ailing defendants: Pol Pot, Ke Pork, Son Sen, Vorn Vet, Van Rit and Ta Mok.
“The ghosts of the past will be sitting next to the people who are living, and they will be pointed to and won’t really be able to say anything in response,” said Alex Hinton, a professor at Rutgers University and the director of a genocide study center there.
Perhaps the most glaring absence aside from Pol Pot is Ta Mok–Grandfather Mok–the butcher of the Southwest Zone, who escaped justice when he died in a military hospital in 2006.
Retired King Norodom Sihanouk said at the time that the idea of a tribunal without Ta Mok’s presence was “ridiculous.”
Mok’s name is woven like a thread through the Case 002 indictment, which describes him and his associates visiting crime scenes, ordering purges, and making autonomous decisions.
“By not having Ta Mok in proceedings, there’s definitely a gap in terms of the story that can be told,” said Anne Heindel, legal adviser to the Documentation Center of Cambodia. “Ta Mok is the key to so much.”
Indeed, his criminality seems to have been so overwhelming that tribunal prosecutors have grappled with it by mounting a case against Mok’s associates.
Case 004, which seems headed for dismissal in the face of virulent government opposition, is largely an attempt to bring Mok’s bloody legacy to account.
All three suspects in the case (as well as the two revolutionary military commanders accused in Case 003) emerged from Mok’s native Southwest zone, which the former monk forged into what historian Michael Vickery called “the zone of ‘Pol Potism’ par excellence” and a stronghold of the revolution.
Unlike most of the Democratic Kampuchea hierarchy, Mok was a warlord whose power was deeply rooted in geography.
Starting from his birthplace in western Tram Kak district in Takeo province and moving outwards, he built a power base by seeding the entire local leadership with family members and loyalists, then promoting them relentlessly.
“Here in the heart of Democratic Kampuchea…clan politics was solidifying into a baroque hierarchy of caste,” wrote historian Ben Kiernan. “Pol Pot and his in-laws dominated at the national level, as did the Mok family dynasty at the Southwest Zone and Region levels.”
This dynasty included Meas Muth, his son-in-law, who is charged of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the tribunal’s Case 003. He started as Tram Kak district secretary before rising through the ranks to become head of the revolutionary navy. On Muth’s watch, collectivization and communal dining were enforced in Tram Kak as early as 1973.
Known as a hardliner even within the Khmer Rouge movement (he was one of the earliest advocates of abolishing currency and taking up arms against Vietnam), Mok and his associates turned Tram Kak into a “model district” for the entire country.
It was recognized with a “red flag award” in 1977 for meeting rice production quotas and foreign guests were often taken there to see the regime’s policies in action. Tram Kak was the only single district to be singled out as a crime scene in Case 002, for its brutal chain of work cooperatives.
It is also a key to Case 004, which deals with events that took place after Mok began to apply his hardline tactics nationwide.
In a wave of purges that convulsed the country starting in mid-1977, top cadres in the North, Northwest and Eastern zones were arrested for failing to satisfy the Center’s demands for productivity and the elimination of alleged enemies of the revolution. Many were replaced with Mok loyalists who had started their careers in Tram Kak.
“At Pol [Pot]’s behest, Mok’s troops purged the Northern Zone in 1976, the Northwest Zone a few months later, and the Eastern Zone in 1978: It is estimated that, in the last of these purges, at least 100,000 people were killed,” wrote historian David Chandler.
In selecting Yim Tith, alias Ta Tith, Im Chaem and Leng An, alias Ta An, for the tribunal’s fourth and last investigation in 2009, UN prosecutors apparently chose to focus their remaining resources on these purges, and the executions and forced labor that subsequently occurred in those areas.
Among the newly installed leaders, Tith, An and Chaem headed groups of cadres transplanted from the Southwest Zone, and asserted control over a network of security centers and forced labor sites where well over 100,000 people died from execution, disease and forced labor.
In “Pol Pot’s Little Red Book,” historian Henri Locard cites a dictum that arose during this period: “Be so kind as to hand over all your belongings, like Orient watches, jewels, powders and oils!”
“This expression was simply an excuse for robbery,” he wrote, “and was used by Khmer Rouge leaders during the terrible purges of 1977-8, when the niredey[ital], the Khmer Rouge from the Southwest led by Ta Mok, came to replace purged cadres and killed the” northwesterners.
Ieng Thirith toured the Northwest in 1976 and pronounced herself shocked at conditions there: people living in squalor and worked to the bone, suffering terribly from diarrhea, malaria and famine.
But instead of attributing the suffering to the party’s rice production and deportation policies, she concluded that “agents had got into our ranks” and that the region was not sufficiently in thrall to the central government, according to Mr Kiernan, the historian.
This prompted both massive leadership purges and population movements. Thousands of southwesterners, including well-indoctrinated “base people” as well as cadres, were shipped to the sparsely populated and ideologically suspect Northwest Zone by train.
Mok himself took over as zone secretary after the former occupant of that position, Ruos Nheum, was purged.
“You see that people in Anlong Veng, Veal Veng, all these former Khmer Rouge strongholds today, the majority came from Takeo,” said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“You go to Anlong Veng and they say, ‘We were sent here from Takeo.’ All the village chiefs in the Northwest by 1978 were women, and they all came from Ta Mok’s unit, and Ta Mok had sent them all over the country.”
In Mr Chhang’s village in the Northwest, he remembered, “three of my village chiefs, all were women and the women ran the whole show in the village where I lived. These were three young kids, 14 18 and 19. They were all well trained because they were inspired by Ta Mok’s leadership.”
These young cadres proceeded to purge the former local leadership, establish stricter rules and communal eating, and reduce rations across the zone.
In 1977, Chaem was plucked from a leadership position in Takeo to become secretary of the Northwest’s Preah Netr Preah district, controlling an area into which tens of thousands of people had been forcibly transferred to perform slave labor on dams and where all lived in the constant danger of being arrested and executed.
According to Mr Kiernan, she was known then as Mother Chaem and led a large group of teenage female cadres to the region.
During the subsequent purge of the East Zone, people there were also forcibly transferred to the Northwest, especially if they had a connection to suspected “traitorous” or pro-Vietnamese cadres there.
According to the Case 002 indictment, cadres from the Southwest and Central zones supervised the transfer, and Mok chaired a meeting in Pursat to discuss how to settle the new arrivals.
In a 2007 interview, Chaem told the Documentation Center of Cambodia that her predecessors were in the process of being purged when she arrived in Preah Netr Preah, and many other cadres had been arrested.
“[People] were afraid,” she said. “Hearing the sound of a car motor, they went into hiding.”
Chaem said she was close to Mok and mentioned that they had discussed a three-year plan for the area.
“I made the plan with you for three years. I said that within three years I would tackle people’s issues here. If I failed, you can send me back” to Takeo, she told Mok.
Ta Tith, the husband of Mok’s youngest sister, started as the communist party secretary of Kiri Vong district in Takeo. After the arrest of Ruos Nheum, the Northwest Zone secretary, in 1978, he accompanied Mok to the Northwest and became deputy zone secretary, leaving him in charge when Mok was absent.
Ta An, a former journalist and a native of the same village in Tram Kak that produced Chaem, was the chief of Takeo’s Kraing Ta Chan security center, according to an interview conducted with his elder brother in January by DC-Cam researchers. More than 15,000 people were likely “smashed” there, according to the Case 002 indictment, with more dying of starvation and illness.
In another DC-Cam interview, An’s nephew “confirmed that An was a chief of Kraing Ta Chan security office, and An has arrested and killed many soldiers and officers from [the] Lon Nol regime at Krain[g] Ta Chan.”
He left the Southwest Zone in 1977 to become deputy secretary of the newly created Central Zone, comprising parts of what is now Kompong Thom and Kompong Cham provinces, as it underwent an extensive purge of its existing cadre. Many were replaced by Mok’s loyalists.
Together, An and Tith are alleged by prosecutors to have run security centers in the Central and Northwest zones collectively responsible for ten times the number of victims exterminated by the secret police, or perhaps 140,000 people.
One was likely the Wat Phnom Pros security center in what is now Kompong Cham, where in mid-1977 a squad of executioners killed between 5,000 and 10,000 victims in just over a month, according to Alex Hinton’s book “Why Did They Kill?” Later that year, hundreds of other purged cadres from the East Zone were shipped there to be murdered, their heads bashed in with shovels.
“Ta Mok had different patronage networks, so you have Ta An, who’s in Case 004. His network eventually extended over to Kompong Cham but it began under Ta Mok. His shadow is still there in a certain sense,” said Mr Hinton.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has declared publicly that Cases 003 and 004 are not “allowed” and they have stalled in the hands of the tribunal’s investigating judges, who have reportedly agreed among themselves not pursue either case.
That means the trial that starts today will be the last time that Mok’s crimes in Tram Kak and the Northwest, and his role in mass purges and population movements, will be aired in a courtroom.
Silke Studzinsky, a civil party lawyer representing hundreds of victims in Case 002, said many of her clients were eager to file claims for reparations in Case 004 and desperate for information on the case, especially as Case 004 suspects were on the ground allegedly overseeing purges and executions.
“They are coming from local crime sites like Trapeang Thma dam and Tram Kak cooperatives in Takeo and they are really very concerned and disappointed that only senior leaders will be tried when it is a mandate of the court that the most responsible for those worksites are also tried,” she said.
“They have found that justice is not for them.”