Former Khmer Rouge Leader Ponders Cambodia’s Future and Talks About His Past

An old man stands at the gate in front of his modest three-room wood stilt house. It’s a cold morning in the foothills north of Pailin, and he is wearing a heavy long-sleeve shirt, a sweater vest, and a powder blue windbreaker with an English-language logo that reads: “Bad Boy.” He grabs a visitor’s hand warmly. “Welcome to my home,” says Nuon Chea.

Brother Number Two has been the silent brother as preparations for the Khmer Rouge tribunal crawl forward. Khieu Samphan released a long open letter last August in which he said he heard from his wife about one death during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Ieng Sary has said he dealt almost exclusively with foreign affairs. Ta Mok says he is very ill. Duch says he’s a born-again Christian.

Nuon Chea has said little in public about the 30 years he spent at the right hand of Pol Pot. But here’s what he saw: the birth of the Khmer Rouge; the years of brutally building support in the countryside and wearing down the Lon Nol government forces; the triumphant march into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975; less than four years of Khmer Rouge control, during which as many as 1.7 million people died by execution, starvation or illness; the retreat to the Thai border area after being driven from Phnom Penh in January 1979 by a Cambodian force backed by the Vietnamese army; 20 years of guerrilla warfare before he finally surrendered to the government in December of 1998.

He has denied any knowledge of the systematic killing of Cambodians, and suggested that if there were such killings, they were committed by “enemy agents.” He has said he believes estimates of the number of people who died from starvation and illness are wildly exaggerated. Beyond that, he says almost nothing.

But there’s no doubt Nuon Chea will be directly in the cross hairs of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, no matter what form it eventually takes.

“The files…suggest that Nuon Chea may have played at least as important a role in dealing with “confessions” as Pol Pot, and perhaps a more important role,” stated the report “Seven Candidates for Prosecution: Accountability for the Crimes of the Khmer Rouge,” a document released last July by long-time Cambodia watcher Stephen Heder, now a teacher at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and Brian Tittemore, an international humanitarian law expert.

The report states there are at least 27 surviving copies of Tuol Sleng confessions marked for transmission to Nuon Chea. There’s little reason to believe he never received them.

He walks slowly up the stairs and enters the front room of the house. At a large wooden table surrounded by heavy wooden chairs, he prepares his breakfast: five spoonfuls of rice porridge, a few squirts of soy sauce, a couple small pieces of dried fish.

“I eat healthy, not fat,” the 75-year-old says. “I get exercise, walking around the yard. And I’ve learned to use medicine to cure myself when I’m sick.”

No trace of irony in his voice, although he knows that lack of food, too much forced labor and no medicine killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime.

There’s a bedroom with a finely-carved wooden bed and a television. (“I mostly watch the National Assembly and football,” he says.) A utility room in the back includes a Western-style toilet with no running water, just a plastic pipe down from the second floor into the ground.

The main decorations in the front room are mounted on the center supporting post. There’s a completed jigsaw puzzle framed under glass of a tiger fighting a dragon. Above it hangs a framed photo of a Thai monk in front of a golden Buddha. Nuon Chea says the photo is a gift from his son.

“[The puzzle] symbolizes two countries fighting,” he says. “I won’t say which two countries they are, but this shows the problems of humanity.” I put the photo of the venerable monk on top to show Buddha can solve the problems of humanity in the picture below.

“We should not create disputes. We should turn big disputes into small disputes. We should turn small disputes into no disputes. We should learn to solve disputes the good way.”

If Nuon Chea sounds philosophical, it’s probably because he has plenty of time to think. His house is a 20-minute ride out of Pailin on a road that deadends at his door. He receives few guests. There are a few guards around the small property that has been hacked out of scrub brush, but any arrival at all is reason enough for him to get out of his chair to look, not out of fear, but more like any retired person who doesn’t have enough activities to fill their day.

On this day, he says he wants to talk about the future.

“Let me express my stand,” he begins. “In 2002, international globalization is important. We must understand that we need lasting peace.

“I used to be a DK leader, but I am not vindictive. Countries that were enemies of the DK are now our friends. That’s why I follow the unity and reconciliation policies of the King and the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“We can build our country with the aid and assistance of the power countries. But we must manage the aid. My duty is to make friends with other countries so people can survive and avoid poverty. I am now a simple citizen, so my duty is to strengthen ties with other countries. I am sincere about this.”

Next comes a formula for peace which is rather remarkable coming from the mouth of a former leader of the xenophobic Khmer Rouge.

“The situation in the world is changing,” Nuon Chea says. “Communication between countries is changing. We have our differences, but somehow we are also all the same.

“Vietnam, Cambodia and China are now united for peace, independence and neutrality. Each country must build itself, with aid from the power countries, especially America.

“If we keep the old views, we are wrong. The long strategy includes three parts. One, eliminate poverty, especially helping the poor with demining and getting water. Two, education. Three, elimination of disease.”

No acknowledgment that poverty, landmines, poor water, poor education and disease remain the scourge of Cambodia mostly as a result of the Khmer Rouge regime. Nuon Chea continues.

“I am regretful that I am old and will not see the prosperity of Cambodia in the future. I am sick, but I still try to make peace. I want to see the world at peace and stable for a long time.”

Vietnam and the US are not our enemies anymore. I never thought the US people were our enemy, just some of the top leaders in their government.

“I love other countries, but I still love my own nation. I am old, but I would still pick up a gun if another country invaded us, because we have the right to keep our sovereignty.”

My life struggle is a half-century [old]. Both bitterly and sweetly, I accept it. But now we must work for peace for the people.

“Vietnam, Cambodia, China, the US. We are the same humanity. We want the same. We seek the same. We suffer the same. We die the same.”

He grabs a visitor’s arm for emphasis.

“Look at us, you and me. Our skin color may be different. But we are the same people.”

Nuon Chea gets up from the table and walks slowly into the bedroom. He says he suffers constantly from circulation problems, and lies down while his wife and a friend check his blood pressure.

In the meantime, a member of the house staff starts setting out a large lunch for his guests. Sour fish soup, fried fish, smoked fish, rice, greens, watermelon and bananas. Plus shots of Johnny Walker Black. It’s 11 am.

After a few minutes, Nuon Chea shuffles back to the table. He barely eats any lunch and stays away from the whiskey.

“My living condition is clean. Not greedy, no corruption, no drinking. No oppression.” He laughs. “No girls.”

He chats while others eat. He says he admires Western thought. “In the West, if they have a problem, they try to learn, so they can solve it,” he says. “In the East, they pray.” He mentions law school courses he took in Bangkok over 50 years ago. Does he ever wish he had become a lawyer?

“No,” he quickly replies. “There’s a difference between the law and the truth. Who uses lawyers? The rich. I chose the truth.”

He asks his visitors for an opinion on how long it might be before a Khmer Rouge trial begins. The answer was maybe another year, or longer. He shrugged and smiled, seeming to say without words that he could live with that.

The four-hour visit is over. He is jokingly offered a ride to Phnom Penh, site of the tribunal when it does happen. He good naturedly declines.

But he does have one request as he offers his farewell. Can he have the baseball cap one of the visitors is wearing?

“A souvenir, ” says Nuon Chea.

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