Known under the revolutionary names of Chhit Choeun, Ta 15 or Ta Mok, Ung Choeun was born in Takeo in southern Cambodia, in 1926. Trained as a Buddhist monk, he became one of the leading representatives – along with So Phim, Moul Sambath (Ruos Nhim) and Ke Pauk – of the group of Khmer Rouge leaders which sprang from the Issarak movement against the French in the 1940s. Mok met Pol Pot in the early 1960s while attending a Pâli school in Phnom Penh (Kiernan, 1996: 87). He was elected to the CPK Central Committee at its second congress in 1963, and five years later became CPK Secretary of the south-western zone. He ordered large-scale massacres in his zone from 1973 onwards. Mok had a reputation for extreme brutality and he was later nicknamed “The Butcher” by the media. When the French ethnologist Francois Bizot was captured in 1971, Mok demanded that he be executed as a CIA agent, until Pol Pot overruled him. Three years later, he engineered the purge and liquidation of a rival Central Committee member, Prasith. He also built and reinforced his authority by placing a network of family members in a number of important positions in his zone. Mok was boastful and crude, yet he also appreciated beauty, importing Chinese bamboo to grace the gardens of his residence at Kbal Ansoang. His troops, and the peasants they controlled, revered him as harsh but just (Short, 2007).
In 1974, his forces, along with those of Pauk (who ruled the north zone), seized Oudong antic city: the town was razed, the population deported and all the prisoners of war and the civil servants massacred. This prefigured the fate of Phnom Penh. Mok was one of the first to call for the abolition of money in 1975, arguing that introducing the new Khmer Rouge currency so soon after abolishing capitalism would bring back corruption and all the ills of the former regime (Short: 396 – Sher, 2004). He was also one of the most fervent partisans to fight the Vietnamese in order to bring back the Kampuchea Krom territory (today south Vietnam). Pol Pot appreciated him more than any other of his military leaders, and from the time of the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975 until 1997, their partnership provided crucial underpinning for the movement. At Pol’s behest, Mok’s troops purged the northern zone in 1976, the north-west 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 (Heder and Tittemore, 2004: 100-108). In November that year, Mok was promoted to Second Deputy Secretary of the CPK, making him the party’s third-ranking leader. After the Vietnamese invasion, he reverted to his role of military commander. He lost a leg in the 1980s, probably injured by land-mine explosion (or, according to some, in a tractor accident).
In 1997, after the purge of Son Sen, he detained Pol Pot and organized a show trial (Son Sen, a Khmer Rouge leader, was assassinated in the last Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng with all the members of his extended family, which appears to be the last purge within the Khmer Rouge movement. The ‘trial’ of Pol Pot by his peers concerned only this murder). While other leaders, including Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphân and Ke Pauk, defected to the government in Phnom Penh, Mok refused to surrender and was the last Khmer Rouge leader to struggle the Hun Sen government. His capture in March 1999 brought an end to more than 30 years of war. He died in prison in Phnom Penh – of respiratory problems – in July 2006 without having being tried.
HEDER, Steve, TITTEMORE, Brian D., 2004, Seven Candidates for Prosecution. Accountability for the Crimes of the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh: Documentation Center of Cambodia.
KANE, Solomon, 2007, Dictionnaire des Khmers rouges, IRASEC, Aux Lieux d’être.
KIERNAN, Ben, 1996, The Pol Pot Regime. Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.