sala krao district/pailin city, Pailin province – As Vietnamese forces took Phnom Penh 32 years ago, Nuon Chea, the communist party’s deputy secretary, hurriedly burned his personal papers, likely including hundreds, if not thousands, of written “confessions” extracted under torture by the secret police.
Whether this was to deny intelligence to the enemy as his government collapsed or to wipe away the traces of his own criminality may never be known.
As he stands trial today, the mountain of evidentiary records held against Nuon Chea, 84, intermixed in a case file of more than 350,000 pages, describes him as the one surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge who had a hand in virtually every criminal policy the regime ever formed.
But here in the former hinterlands of Nuon Chea’s communist movement, his wife, Ly Kimseng, 76, says she is unimpressed.
“My children and I will not attend the trial because it is unjust,” she said last week, adding that Nuon Chea, whose hand she held while visiting the jail just over a week ago, felt the same. He said he will not listen.
“‘I don’t want to hear, to know or to see because it is unjust,’ my husband told me.”
Seeking accountability for war-time atrocities has long been proposed as one means of national reconciliation. But the immediate effects of indictment and courtroom accusation can harden a war’s losers against the peace imposed by its winners.
In secret opinion polls conducted by the US government from 1946 to 1958, large majorities of West Germans consistently said the 1945 trials of Nazi war criminals at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg had been unfair and that Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, who killed himself rather than face hanging, had been innocent.
By 1953, the US State Department concluded that the trials were “generally portrayed as acts of political retribution without firm legal basis,” according to Michael Scharf, a professor of law in the US.
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said yesterday that the court could allow the public to reconcile with the past, if not with each other.
“The court is not a reconciliation forum, but it will provide a solid foundation through a final judgment for all to reconcile with the past, how to remember the past, to educate the population today so that move on,” he wrote in an e-mail.
The tribunal has won widespread public support with more than 80 percent of the population believing that it will promote national reconciliation, according to a survey by the University of California Berkeley School of Law’s Human Rights Center.
Former Khmer Rouge soldiers interviewed here expressed a desire for the top leaders to be tried and punished.
Pel Leap joined the Khmer Rouge army 40 years ago at the age of 17. He said the suspects should be held accountable for their system of cruelty. “Your rule led to a bad regime so you get bad fortune by your actions,” he said, addressing the accused.
Mr Leap added that he broke down into tears during a visit to Tuol Sleng prison this year when he found out about atrocities committed under the regime he once fought for.
Ruom Nganh, 37, who lost his leg to a landmine while fighting for the Khmer Rouge in 1995, also called for justice. “They must be tried to end our nation’s suffering and to satisfy victims.”
Ly Bunthoeun, 49, Nuon Chea’s eldest daughter, said during in an interview at her house on a farm in Pailin City that her father had advised her to concentrate on farming to support her family instead of the trials.
“I feel the trial is unjust because I don’t believe my father was a killer. I don’t believe my father killed his own nation,” Ms Bunthoeun said, noting that according to karma he deserved to be set free.
Khieu Sengkim, brother to the regime’s onetime head of state Khieu Samphan, who also stands trial today, said the tribunal would be “useless” for the historical record.
Mr Sengkim, a journalist writing a book about the trial, could not believe that his brother was accused of genocide and other crimes yet in 1991 instead of facing arrest he represented the Khmer Rouge at the Supreme National Council.
“My brother was a member of the SNC seeking peace for Cambodia so why are they sentencing him now?”
The SNC, which was set up under the Paris Peace Agreement and consisted of four warring factions, embodied Cambodian sovereignty and represented the country at the UN in the period until supervised elections.
Khieu Samphan’s 36-year-old daughter Khieu Ratana, an NGO worker in Phnom Penh, said she would attend the court proceedings.
“I have nothing to say about the trial, but I will see the outcome of father’s case.”
(Additional reporting by Alice Foster)