Prime Minsiter Hun Sen meets with his former deadly foes Khieu Samphan (left) and Nuon Chea (right): Takhmao, Dec 29.
The old man looked like a simple tourist, wearing sunglasses and walking with a stick
just outside Angkor Wat temple. But unlike a simple tourist he was surrounded by
body guards and police.
He did not take the time for a last sunset glance at Angkor Wat - the place he once
wanted to make the capital of his vision of a new Cambodia.
He rushed out, trying to avoid the few journalists who caught up with the fleeing
alleged mass-murderer, one of the fathers of the revolution.
Nuon Chea disappeared in a car next to the one where Khieu Samphan was already waiting
and drove off, an escort at the beginning and at the end.
This is the last public image of the two former KR leaders during their tour of the
country organized by the government. Since then, they have gone back to their fiefdom
of Pailin, hiding from outrage here and abroad.
Their unexpected and sudden reappearance has revived all ghosts of 1975-79; an opening
of Pandora's box.
"Yes, sorry. I'm very sorry." That's all Khieu Samphan managed to say for
the genocide, at their only press conference at the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel Dec 29.
Nuon Chea added in a what could still be taken as a very cynical remark: "Sorry
as well for the lives of animals endangered during the war."
But, far from apologetic, the two pleaded for the past to be forgotten in the name
of national reconciliation and peace. "Let bygones be bygones," repeated
Samphan again and again, like a leitmotiv, as if trying to convince his compatriots.
The news of the pair's defection was broadcast at 2am Dec. 26 on Bayon radio, as
if this important piece of news should be kept unnoticed somehow.
Agence France Presse broke the story later that morning and from then on the wild
dance of the news kept the rhythm going.
In Pailin Jan 3 few people knew about it. Those who did were silent, no word on the
whereabouts of Samphan and Chea.
Ieng Sary and most of the leadership of the ex-Khmer Rouge town were already in Phnom
Penh bargaining with the government over the fate of the two men.
"I haven't heard the news of their return, said a 35-year-old woman, a former
guerrilla soldier herself, requesting anonymity.
"I am happy to see them here but only if they do not kill anyone. Between 1975
and 1979, Khieu Samphan killed lots of people. If Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea come
here and start fighting again, people will not allow them to do it. We will kick
Further outside town, in an old house, Maou sat on a bench under the porch outside
his home, enjoying dusk.
He recalled the time when he met Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea.
"Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, Ta Mok. I knew them all. They used to give
us political training in Trat in 1982 and 1983," said the aging father-of-eight.
He lives on a 500-baht-per-month pension since he lost his right leg seven years
ago to a landmine. "If [Samphan and Chea] come and keep quiet I am happy,"
he said, with a little smile.
Some were more confident and less worried.
A canteen owner, a former soldier in Phnom Malai, said the men were not so bad and
that all that took place in the 1970's was to protect the country.
The welcome - surprisingly to many - was to be repeated in Phnom Penh by Prime Minister
Hun Sen, in seeming contradiction to comments he'd made before.
In a speech at the Council of Ministers, he assured the two would be received in
Phnom Penh, but with bouquets of flowers rather than handcuffs.
A CPP official who had learned about the negotiations between the KR leaders and
the government two weeks before the defection said he was surprised by Hun Sen's
"It is not the sense of justice but the political gain of the situation that
one sees first, " he said. It was his only explanation of Hun Sen's reception
towards his former enemies.
Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, gave welcome smiles to Samphan and Chea in their
Takhmao house, Sary seated next to the Prime Minister in, it seemed, almost a cosy
Local television footage was broadcast around the world in what has been seen by
some within the CPP as a mishandling of public relations.
"Some advisers focus too much on the idea of national reconciliation without
thinking of the reaction of the international community," said the CPP official.
"[The KR leaders] wanted assurances that they would not be arrested," he
said. To ease the defection process, it had also been decided to keep Ta Mok out
of the way. "If they would have come altogether the situation would have been
more difficult for Samphan and Chea."
Asked whether Mok would be next to appear, the official expressed doubt, suggesting
that it could be better to let him die alone.
After meeting Hun Sen, the Khmer Rouge leaders were driven away in a simple old red
van - perhaps a definitive humiliation - to a luxurious hotel where the press was
waiting for them.
Samphan was unrecognizable from the personality he was in 1991, his hair freshly
dyed black, the last coquetry of an aging man; Chea's face was fixed and his eyes
- "laser-like," said one journalist - looked empty.
The 71-year-old Chea seemed unconcerned by the fuss made around him. He wore an enigmatic
smile throughout the press conference and let Samphan do the talking while he looked
unflinchingly through everyone. Brother No. 2 reluctantly answered the only question
put directly to him.
Twenty-five minutes later it was over; they would not talk to the press again.
For the next six days, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea went on tour: Phnom Penh luxury,
Sihanoukville sun, Siem Reap spirituality, then Pailin "retirement" - organized,
supervised and paid for by the Ministry of Defense.
In Sihanoukville, they stayed in their rooms, managing only to slip away for an hour-long
tour escorted by bodyguards in pickup trucks on road opened for them with sirens.
Their wives and children got a taste of the sandy beach, taking snapshots altogether
with their bodyguards. The men had a quiet New Year's Eve dinner on the terrace of
their hotel, guarded by MPs.
The hotel staff were used to these kinds of visits - Ieng Sary had once stayed in
This time, Man Nolyta helped to bring the luggage up to the rooms.
"I did not know it was Khieu Samphan. My colleagues told me afterwards. He does
not look like a cruel man," said the 29-year-old, who had lost his father and
four brothers during the Khmer Rouge.
"I am not afraid of him. Now it is different from his regime."
But outrage began increasingly blowing around Samphan and Chea. Demands for a trial
were bursting forth from every direction.
King Sihanouk said he would not grant any amnesty.
Referring to the discontented majority of Cambodians, the King wrote that he was
leaving full responsibility for the men's fate to Hun Sen.
The King's words echoed what was becoming popular reaction. Phnom Penh market-seller
Monineath lost her parents in late 1975 in Takeo province when she was seven: "Just
to say ësorry' is not enough, they were the leaders of the killers. They must be
tried for the mistakes they have made. I want them to face trial but if the government
thinks that the defection brings peace and stability to our country, it is up to
the government because I also need peace."
Chhun Noam in Siem Reap said the same. He trusted Hun Sen to deal with the problem.
Other voices were stronger, demanding a trial, or at least to know and understand
what happened during the regime.
The receptionist at the Royal Phnom Penh hotel proposed a middle path. "They
should be tried. I want to know, I want to understand what they did. They should
be sentenced and then the King should give them an amnesty to prevent the war from
This thirst to understand. Kouk, a taxi-driver, also had it: "I want to go and
ask them what happened, why my father was killed. They must not lie to me."
From abroad, the demands for justice were more straightforward - but, like so many
of the utterances from inside Cambodia, the demands were often coming from countries
that had once supported the Khmer Rouge.
Samphan and Chea were unable to close their ears to the noise. They drew back angrily.
"I think [talk of a trial] will not benefit the nation," said KR frontman
"This will involve the 200 days and nights of [US] bombing. It may also drag
in China. This is a complicated issue.
"If they push for [international tribunal] we will dig up the past and present
our own case. Then we will go to The Hague together for the trial."
How the pair reacted to Hun Sen's Jan 1 statement is unclear - but they became even
more reclusive following it.
Hun Sen said it was up to legal experts to decide on the procedures of a trial.
He said he never guaranteed immunity for the Khmer Rouge leaders, but he also said
he welcomed Samphan and Chea back into society.
He also took a swipe at Thailand - or at least complicit Thais in power - for having
undoubtedly harbored the outlaws for years.
Observers noted that the ambiguity of Hun Sen's statement left open the door for
any move he might be willing to take in the future.
In Siem Reap, as the two Khmer Rouge leaders were finishing their guided tour, and
as Khieu Samphan was giving a $50 tip to his driver, a 50-year-old man was waiting
in the lobby of their hotel.
He had just returned from the United States after 19 years, in a pilgrimage back
to the beginning of the horror from which he had fled in 1979.
He said: "It is a coincidence, a pure coincidence," when asked how he felt
at this time of his cathartic journey home - at a time when his own demons personified
But his voice quickly broke down and his eyes began shining brightly.
The next morning, a couple of hours before Samphan and Chea left for Pailin, the
man also left with his daughter on a trip purely for his own story.
They were heading to Battambang to see the place where the girl was born in 1977.
"She wanted to see where it is. It was a difficult time." That was all
he could say.
The emotion was too strong.