Image: Ta Mok
AP file
Captured Khmer Rouge army chief Ta Mok sits in a prison cell at the Cambodia military prosecution center in Phnom Penh in this March 1999 photo.
updated 7/20/2006 8:12:15 PM ET 2006-07-21T00:12:15

Ta Mok, known as "The Butcher" for his brutality as military chief of the communist Khmer Rouge, died Friday in the Cambodian capital. He was believed to be 80.

Ta Mok, who was born in 1926, according to available records, was suffering from high blood pressure, tuberculosis and respiratory complications. He was being treated at a military hospital, where he had lapsed into a coma, and died, Benson Samay, his lawyer, said. He had been in government custody since 1999.

Samay said that he died at 4:45 a.m. Friday. Ta Mok briefly led the Khmer Rouge during its final days, and was one of two former senior officials of the movement in detention awaiting trial for crimes against humanity committed during a 1975-1979 reign of terror, when an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died of starvation, overwork, diseases and execution.

A veteran revolutionary who operated much of the time as a regional warlord, his ruthlessness earned him the nickname "The Butcher" in the Western press.

As he presided over the disintegration of the Khmer Rouge, he even showed no hesitation in taking prisoner the group's equally notorious leader Pol Pot, and denigrating him after his death from an apparent heart attack in April 1998.

"He has no power and no rights any longer," Ta Mok said at his then-stronghold in Anlong Veng about 190 miles north of the capital Phnom Penh, after Pol Pot's body was unceremoniously burned. "He is nothing more than cow dung. Actually cow dung is more useful because it can be used as fertilizer."

Early adherent of communism
Unlike other surviving Khmer Rouge leaders, Ta Mok struck no deal to surrender or defect to the government. He was captured along the Thai-Cambodian border in March 1999 while on the run with a small band of followers.

Born into a peasant family in the southern province of Takeo, Ta Mok left the Buddhist monkhood at the age of 16 and joined the resistance against the French colonialists in the 1940s.

He was an early adherent of the Communist Party built up by Pol Pot and, at some time during his revolutionary career, took the nom de guerre of Ta Mok, meaning Grandfather Mok. He used several pseudonyms over the course of his life, but his real name was Ung Choeun.

He was reportedly involved in several massacres during the bitter five-year civil war that led to the Khmer Rouge coming to power in 1975.

In a chilling harbinger of how the group would act when it captured the Cambodia capital Phnom Penh a year later — he was said to have been one of the commanders involved in the March 1974 razing of the former royal capital at Oudong, the expulsion of its civilian population, and the massacre of officials and government soldiers captured there.

After the Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975, he headed the Khmer Rouge's Southwestern Zone from his home province of Takeo. The area became infamous for executions, torture and conditions of slave labor in the rural communes favored by the communist group.

In 1978, as the Khmer Rouge regime was destroying itself from within due to paranoia about enemies real and imagined, Ta Mok was dispatched to conduct a merciless purge in the country's Eastern Zone bordering Vietnam.

Bloody Khmer Rouge raids on Vietnamese villages precipitated an invasion by Hanoi's army in December 1978, which in early 1979 drove Pol Pot and colleagues from power and back into the jungles, from where they continued to fight against a Vietnamese-installed regime.

Claimed to grave he never killed anyone
Like many Khmer Rouge leaders — and ordinary Cambodians, who are historically suspicious of their largest neighbor — Ta Mok despised Vietnamese for supposedly harboring ambitions to annex their country.

Hardened by jungle life, the loss of a leg to a land mine in the early 1980s while inspecting a road project failed to keep Ta Mok from carrying on with guerrilla struggle against successive governments in Phnom Penh.

After the Khmer Rouge movement began falling into disarray in 1996, Ta Mok toppled Pol Pot in a bloody 1997 power play and forced other leaders of the group into joining him. But with the group's force all but spent, the government was able to capture its last stronghold at Anlong Veng soon after Pol Pot's death, forcing Ta Mok to flee.

After his capture he was jailed in March 1999, while other top Khmer Rouge leaders who defected or surrendered remained free.

He had been held in a Phnom Penh military prison but was hospitalized at the end of June this year shortly before judges and prosecutors were sworn in to begin U.N.-backed trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Cambodian and U.N.-appointed foreign prosecutors have begun gathering evidence for the trials, expected to begin in 2007. Samay, Ta Mok's lawyer, said in early July that Ta Mok had told him that he would tell his side of the story if given the chance to do so in court.

"He told me on July 10 that he wanted to tell the world that he never killed anyone," Samay said — repeating a claim voiced repeatedly by Ta Mok.

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