Nuon Chea escorted to court as a witness in the trial of former Khmer Rouge commander Sam Bith, on December 12, 2001.
Nuon Chea welcomed visitors to his wooden, stilted house in Pailin, then demonstrated
the qualities that made him the lead Khmer Rouge trainer and organizer.
For over an hour the former Brother Number 2 held what amounted to an ideology session
on issues ranging from precepts of Buddhism, to being accountable for the killing
of countless Cambodians in the late 1970s, and his willingness to stand in the dock
at a United Nations-backed genocide tribunal.
Dressed for comfort in the manner of a frail retired person - two tattered shirts,
a pair of loose red pants sewn from a krama - Chea lamented that mass starvation
was caused by those under his supervision who "over-implemented guidelines".
For example, he said, subordinates cut people's rice rations from 12 kilograms per
month to one kilogram without his knowledge.
"My conscience has to be responsible for the deaths of these people," said
Chea, throwing his hands forward for emphasis.
On the vast number of people who died from torture and execution he said: "That
is my regret. It was from our carelessness, but it was not our intention. It happened
in part from interference from foreign countries, and some among the regime's leaders
were bad people too."
Yet Chea wouldn't name the leaders within the Angkar - the Organization - who were
rotten. He also stressed he would never finger countries that interfered in national
matters, for fear of damaging relations with those who now give development aid.
"I want to clarify that in the Khmer Rouge regime there were some mistakes,"
he said. "But what level those mistakes were, people do not know yet. I don't
know how many people died during the regime."
However Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which for
the past seven years has been gathering evidence on atrocities committed during the
Khmer Rouge, said the result of policies designed and implemented by Chea is well
"We have so far identified over 19,000 mass graves around the country. He can
visit some of those graves and he can ask every single Cambodian family how many
of their family members have died during the KR regime," said Chhang.
Moreover, it was noted in Seven Candidates for Prosecution: Accountability for Crimes
of the Khmer Rouge, a book by London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
lecturer Steven Heder, that Chea "might have played a more important role than
Pol Pot in dealing with confessions and purges".
Heder said in a June interview that it was likely true Chea was unaware of the extent
of Khmer Rouge atrocities, but that is because there was no incentive to tell the
truth in his government. To admit to something such as plummeting rice production
was to fall to accusations of sabotaging the regime and possibly be executed, said
"Certainly some lower-downs killed en masse people they were only supposed to
kill selectively. But they were given the power to do so, they were put in situations
by leadership that compelled them to do so," said Heder.
"Instead of changing those policies, [Khmer Rouge leaders] blamed and executed
subordinates for the failure of their own policies," Heder said. "So by
continuing to blame subordinates, he's only continuing to deny his own responsibility
for both the executions and starvations. The only difference is that he no longer
has the power to kill people. Thank God."
Genocide researcher Craig Etcheson welcomed Chea's partial admission of responsibility
but doubted the past weighed on his conscience.
"An expression of regret for widespread starvation under the Khmer Rouge regime
is a good start, but the fact that he won't own up to the fantastic number of executions
seems to undercut any sense that he is genuinely sincere in his regret," Etcheson
"An authentic expression of remorse has to include a genuine confession or expression
of guilt about wrongdoing. And even then, whether or not your victims will acknowledge
or accept that regret is another thing altogether."
As rain drummed the roof of Chea's home on June 6, the first anniversary of the formal
agreement between the United Nations and Cambodian government to establish extraordinary
chambers for a genocide tribunal, it was clear he anticipated he would soon be required
to make a formal plea in court.
"Now let's say this court is set up. Am I afraid? I'm really not. I am ready
to give my testimony to the court," he said with a laugh.
Chea confided that these days he's far more worried that the rainy season might not
bring enough water for crops.
"My biggest concern is drought, because my children grow sesame. When they started
growing sesame, there were no raindrops," he said. "If it [drought] affects
the poor people, it will affect all of us because all of us depend on farmers. All
for one and one for all. Tous pour un et un pour tous."
The old man then asked an NGO driver sitting in on the interview for a ride to trial
proceedings in Phnom Penh, and mused that he was now so poor he would probably have
to sleep in a Phnom Penh pagoda between sessions in court. Furthermore, he claimed
he would not use a lawyer.
"A lawyer knows about the procedure of the law - the lawyer does not know in
my mind how much I love my people, how much I regret. How can a lawyer say these
words instead of me?...When I go to the court, I will speak the words that come from
my own heart. Whatever mistakes I have made, I will accept responsibility,"
The old man said he constantly attempts to serve the interests of the nation, so
wouldn't appeal a guilty genocide verdict. With no appeal, he reasoned, the remaining
international community funds designated for the tribunal could instead be given
to low-paid Cambodian civil servants.
"It would be better to give higher salaries to teachers, to low-ranking policemen,
to promote the health sector. So I will not continue to the appeal court - the first
trial will be enough," he said.
"So let's say the court sentences me and puts me in jail. They can only keep
my body in jail, but my conscience will have served my nation and my people. Frankly
speaking, no one can sentence my conscience."
It's clear former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan has also put a great deal
of thought into the prospect of a genocide tribunal. His wooden home next to Chea's
has stood empty since last year when he moved his family to a modern gated house
in Pailin town.
Since Samphan's bestselling The Recent History of Cambodia and My Successive Positions
hit stores in early March, he has been coy to give on-the-record interviews to most
media. The book appeared to be a 183-page pre-trial defence, complete with an introduction
penned by his lawyer, Jacques Verges, infamous for providing defence for terrorist
Carlos the Jackal and Nazi leader Klaus Barbie.
"The Khmer Rouge killers just kept Mr Khieu Samphan as a fellow traveller who
walked on the road with them," wrote Verges.
When visited in Pailin in June, it appeared the 72-year-old Samphan had ended his
previous practice of raising ducks in favor of surfing the internet with a new black
laptop. However he refused to grant an interview.
"You may make your inquiries with some other people who know me quite well to
tell you what they see and what they think about me," said Samphan after his
daughter brought his guests glasses of water.
Some in the muddy gem-mining town said Samphan, who won a scholarship in the 1950s
to study at the University of Paris faculty of law, curses at his children for their
lack of cleverness. Even the Frenchmen didn't surpass his intellect as a young student,
he told his children, so why have they accomplished so little?
Pailin locals also said former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary, 75, was to
undergo heart surgery in late June in a Bangkok hospital.
As for whether any of the senior Khmer Rouge leaders will be brought to court soon,
officials said much depended on final tribunal talks of UN member states in New York.
Some donors reportedly found the trial's three-year budget of 60 to 70 million dollars
"Now they are negotiating for a reduction of the tribunal budget, but I don't
know how much they will cut it," said Sin Visoth, executive secretary of the
Cambodian government task force to form the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
A UN assistant to the Khmer Rouge trials, Karsten Herrel, wrote in an e-mail from
New York that "in view of the very fluid situation during the ongoing budget
discussions" all he could say was: "There is a minimum operating cost associated
with ensuring efficiency and effectiveness of the Extraordinary Chambers while meeting
standards for international criminal proceedings. It is the purpose of the current
consultations with donor states to define that threshold."
However there are concerns that the price for justice might be pegged too low.
"The leading members of the group of interested states are demanding dramatic
cuts to the tribunal budget - by as much as half according to some reports,"
said genocide researcher Etcheson. "It's difficult to square that demand of
interested states along with demands for international standards in a tribunal."
Steven Heder said there is a false notion that the case against senior Khmer Rouge
leaders is open and shut. As the first Marxist-Leninist crimes against humanity tribunal
it would be less straightforward than past successful international prosecutions
of Nazism and right-wing extremism, he said, adding that much research remains to
be done into culpability of lower-level Khmer Rouge cadres.
"Attempting to do the hardest case with the least amount of money may result
in more problems than people are envisaging," said Heder.
And UN member states aren't the only ones who found fault with the tribunal budget.
Chea estimated salaries for foreign court officials would be 30 times greater than
those of Cambodians and regarded it as an affront from the international community.
"Why is there such a difference in salaries between foreign and Cambodian court
workers? It seems they're looking down on the prestige of the Cambodian nation. If
there's such a difference in salary, I find it unacceptable but I cannot protest,"
The government task force's Visoth said the gulf between salaries isn't that wide.
A Cambodian judge stood to make about fifty percent of a UN salary, he said.
As the former Brother Number 2 spoke of his health problems - he has heart disease,
takes blood pressure medication and cannot use his left hand as result of a stroke
- his wife returned from Pailin market with a rechargeable electric fly swatter she
bought for 80 baht ($2).
The house guests took turns zapping mosquitoes, and Chea was asked whether he was
worried about someone coming to avenge the Khmer Rouge past and kill him, as he lived
alone with his wife in a secluded forest clearing.
"I'm not worried because I only committed good things," Chea answered.
The Thoughts of Brother No 2
Quotable Nuon Chea, who says he is concentrating on living a proper Buddhist life:
"I am Khmer. No country is better than Cambodia. Don't worry - I won't escape
to another country."
"If they ask me, I will go. They don't need the police to escort me. I'm ready
to testify in court."
"To be a good economic leader, you have to lead with cleverness. But now the
country's economy is led by gambling."
"The reason I'm preparing to go to this Khmer Rouge tribunal is I will talk
about other countries. But I will not hurt relations with this country. Those countries
at that time had an unfriendly policy with us but now they help us develop. So before
I testify I will be careful whether it will affect those countries or not because
those countries help develop our country now."
"The US B-52 warplanes dropped bombs everywhere in Cambodia. They supported
the Lon Nol regime against our movement. Why can't researchers find the realities
about this issue too? Why did they drop bombs on Cambodia? Did Cambodians invade
other countries? Cambodia in the meantime needed to protect its sovereignty."
"Frankly speaking, today I don't want revenge against the US or the Vietnamese.
I struggled against their spies in the past."
"Today more people go to sing karaoke than go to the pagoda. Even old people
go to karaoke, not to the pagoda."
"I think we have to stop using revenge. We have to eradicate revenge from people's
minds with peaceful methods. It is less fruitful if you solve problems with force."
"Now the people are even eating dogs - I lost one of my dogs. I had so much
sympathy for him; I fed him and regarded him as one of my family because he helped
protect us." "This society puts us under a lot of stress because people
are even eating dogs."
"Do you know the meaning of meditation? We want to know ourselves, to know our
own minds and own body - what our minds and bodies look like."
"If one nation tries to get revenge on another nation, there will be no peace.
The people will not be safe. From my understanding, if we want our country to develop
we have to use our brains, and solve our problems with cleverness."
"At the moment, I keep my body quiet and keep my mind calm. If the trial finds
me not guilty when it's finished, I could even become a monk."
"When we die, nearly everything will be gone. What remains will be the good
standards we left for the people."