In a military hospital in Phnomh Penh yesterday, an 80-year-old man, so weak he had to struggle for every breath, died. He was not, by all accounts, much to look at. One leg was missing. A chunk of one of his lungs had been removed years ago. He was suffering from tuberculosis and high blood pressure. For a week he had flitted in and out of a coma. But, though he betrayed little sign of it in his slow death, he had once been one of the most feared men of the twentieth century.
A man out of the world of nightmares, who was intimately involved in the systematic massacre of somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million of his own people. This feeble old man was once the comrade-in-arms of Pol Pot. He was Brother Number Four, part of the Khmer Rouge high command, and one of the architects of the Killing Fields.
And by dying when he did, Ta Mok cheated, at the very last moment, millions of Cambodians of the justice they had been demanding for a quarter of a century. He died just weeks after the judges had finally been sworn in for the long-awaited trials of Khmer Rouge leaders for crimes against humanity. Now there are almost none left to try: they are all either dead or safe under immunity deals.
The numbers alone do not tell the story. They say the Khmer Rouge inspired such fear in Cambodia that, decades after their regime fell, mere rumours of their return were enough to make people start fleeing. The dead man in a hospital bed in Phnomh Penh yesterday was at the heart of that terror. In the West, journalists liked to call him The Butcher.
During their less than four years in power, the Khmer Rouge killed so many of their own people so fast that the historians have never been able to work out how many actually died. In the memorial at Choeung Ek fields, outside Phnomh Penh, there is a glass shrine that contains 8,000 human skulls, so large a number the deaths become impersonal, and it's just a minuscule fraction of the number who died there.
They died pitiful deaths. "Bullets are not to be wasted," reads a brusque official directive from the Khmer Rouge. So some of them were forced to kneel before their own open graves, then stabbed through the head with a sharpened bamboo stake. Others were bludgeoned to death with iron bars, hammers, axe handles or spades by the guards. Some were just buried alive.
The Killing Fields were extermination camps. The Khmer Rouge killed a quarter of the population of Cambodia at the time. But if this was a genocide, it was one that was not driven by race or religion. The killers and the victims were Cambodians. It was a genocide carried out by a people on itself.
And Ta Mok, the man who lay dead in a hospital bed in Phnomh Penh yesterday, is believed to have been one of the driving forces behind it. They killed Westerners too, Ta Mok and his Khmer Rouge comrades, including John Dawson Dewhirst, a British amateur yachtsman from Newcastle-upon-Tyne whose yacht drifted into Cambodian waters in 1978 and disappeared. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, photographs and "confessions" by Dewhirst and several other Westerners were found in Phnomh Penh's S-21 prison. They had been captured by the Khmer Rouge and tortured into "confessing" that they were spies, just a few of the 14,000 who were sent to their deaths from S-21. Ta Mok is believed to have been involved in the tortures and killings at S-21.
He was a true believer. As late as 1996, when the Khmer Rouge had been reduced to a guerrilla force in the jungle, he tried to start a crackdown against creeping capitalist lifestyles.
And yet, in the end, it was Ta Mok who turned on Pol Pot in 1997 and put him under house arrest. When Pol Pot died, apparently of a heart attack, the following year, there were some who suspected Ta Mok may have had him killed.
His death will feed into the controversy over how many former Khmer Rouge leaders have been given immunity by the Prime Minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen. So many that the tribunals, which are due to start at last next year, may be forced into irrelevance by the fact they have almost no one to try.
Ta Mok was born in 1926, into a poor peasant family. His real name was Chhit Choeun. Ta Mok was a nom de guerre he later took for himself. His background meant that, unlike many of the other Khmer Rouge leaders, he did not have a foreign education, and was not considered an intellectual. He fought in the resistance in the Forties, first against French colonial rule and later against the Japanese. But in 1964 he was training to become a Buddhist monk when he fell in with the Khmer Rouge. The religious life was soon left far behind. By the end of the Sixties he was the Khmer Rouge's military commander.
The Khmer Rouge had emerged from Vietnamese communists' attempts to create a front organisation for themselves in neighbouring Cambodia, but it had been taken over by Cambodians who, under Pol Pot, began to evolve a far more extreme form of communism.
When the Khmer Rouge finally seized power on 17 April 1975, they abolished schools, hospitals, factories, banking, money, religion and private property. They declared the Year Zero, the start of one of the most extraordinary and brutal attempts completely to reorder a society in modern history.
In an attempt to create an agrarian communist Utopia, the Khmer Rouge attempted to abolish cities altogether. They ordered the people out of Phnomh Penh and Cambodia's other cities, telling them it was because of the threat of American bombing, and would only be for a few days. In fact, the Khmer Rouge had no intention of letting people back into the cities. They were forced to live in rural labour camps, working in the fields in 12-hour shifts without a break. Thousands died from exhaustion, illness and starvation. They were expected to produce three tons of rice per hectare, three times the average before the Khmer Rouge took power.
Anyone who stood in the way of this insane plan was executed. Even the most minor infringement of the rules could get you sent to the Killing Fields. And some groups were executed automatically: Christians, Muslims, Buddhist monks, whose number Ta Mok had once hoped to join, professionals and intellectuals. They say anyone wearing glasses was liable to be killed as an intellectual.
But they weren't simply dragged away to be killed. The Khmer Rouge's Cambodia was an Orwellian nightmare. They were sent for "re-education". In practice, it meant being sent for torture and probably execution. Crimes that could get you sent there included "memory sickness" - any degree of nostalgia for pre-Khmer Rouge times.
The Khmer Rouge tried to seal Cambodia off entirely from the outside world. But their horrific experiment in restructuring society lasted less than four years in the end. In December 1978, Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia, capturing Phnomh Penh a month later and deposing the Khmer Rouge, whose leaders fled into the west of the country.
But in a strange postscript to their rule, the Khmer Rouge managed to cling on to dwindling pockets of Cambodia for the next two decades, fighting on as jungle guerrillas and trying to preserve their ideology.
Ta Mok remained a pivotal figure, controlling the northern part of the Khmer Rouge's territory from his base in Anlong Veng. From there, strange stories emerged about him: that he had recast himself as a warlord, that he was protected by an all-female bodyguard.
In the end, Ta Mok's determination to keep the Khmer Rouge's ideology alive was one of the factors blamed for the split in the group that brought about its downfall, after he tried to lead a crackdown against a more capitalist lifestyle in its territory. In 1997, he named himself supreme commander of the Khmer Rouge, arrested Pol Pot and placed him under house arrest. But the following year, Ta Mok was forced to flee into the jungle after a government attack, taking Pol Pot with him. A few days later Pol Pot died in a jungle shack, reportedly of a heart attack. Ta Mok was the last leader of the Khmer Rouge still at large, but it didn't last long. In 1999, he was finally captured and brought to Phnomh Penh.
Several other high-profile Khmer Rouge leaders, including Brothers Number Two and Three, had given themselves up in return for a guarantee of immunity from the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, who said Cambodia should bury the past. But the pardons have causing considerable discontent among ordinary Cambodians, so after years of delaying tactics, Mr Hun was prepared to send Ta Mok before the UN-backed tribunals next year. Some critics said that, with so many other leaders getting off the hook, Ta Mok was a scapegoat.
Now that is a trial that will never happen. The only senior Khmer Rouge leader who is now likely to stand trial is Kaing Khek Iev, also known by his nom de guerre "Duch", who was head of the S-21 torture centre, where thousands of Cambodians died, and who told a journalist in 1999 that he remembered the murdered Briton John Dawson Dewhirst as "very polite".
He is the only other senior leader in custody who has not been given immunity. He is 59 years old, which means Cambodians may yet get to see the trial of one of the men who carried out genocide on their own people.Reuse content