Former Khmer Rouge Leader Talks About the Past, Ponders the Present

Burning tank village, Pailin municipality – Van Dy, 45, wakes each morning to the rusted embodiment of the Khmer Rouge’s recent past.

Slumped some 20 meters apart, the corroding, shattered hulks of two Russian T-55 tanks form the front-door vista that greets Van Dy’s day.

Both government tanks were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge during the short-lived victories of the 1994 dry season offensive.

Tapping on his prosthetic left leg, Van Dy traced the trajectory of the DK 82 recoilless rifle shell, fired from the ridge above his house, that crippled the iron behemoth now sitting weed-covered on the edge of the dusty road in front of his home.

“It’s there to remind us about what happened in the past…. But it’s been a long time [since the fighting]. Only at the beginning it reminded us,” he said, adding that the tanks have become more of a tourist attraction than a banner of Khmer Rouge resolve.

The tanks, whose fiery demise bequeathed this village its name, don’t evoke many feelings anymore for these former communist guerrillas who are now trying their hand as profit-making farmers.

“People want to change the name of the village, but the name has been sent to the government
[for recognition], and Pailin Municipality said they can’t change it now,” said neighbor Meas Sok Chea, 40, as she cradled an infant child in one arm and recounted the unbearable weight of two anti-tank shells she once carried as an ammunitions porter.

A decade later, these iron symbols of Pailin’s resistance have a meaning almost as ambiguous for these villagers as the living emblems of the Khmer Rouge movement who reside a short drive down the dusty road from Burning Tank Village.

“I want a tribunal too, to see who killed the people during the three years, eight months of the Khmer Rouge regime,” said Van Dy, himself a former communist combatant.

A few kilometers away in a small compound surrounded by bamboo groves and bush grass, so near Thailand it is difficult to say which side of the border one is on, Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea potter around in old age.

A small mountain of corn ears are stacked at the entrance to the overgrown ranch where three wooden buildings are spaced modestly apart.

Khieu Samphan’s house is painted baby-blue and white; set further back from the entrance is
Nuon Chea’s more rustic wooden home, which is brightened by a few colorful potted plants at the entrance.

The only remaining sign that it was once the most secretive meeting place of Pailin’s Khmer Rouge inner council is a discarded anti-aircraft gun, minus its wheels and carriage, its double cannons half-buried in grass at the compound’s entrance.

Both men know the long-awaited and much debated Khmer Rouge tribunal is approaching, and they
are each preparing in their own way.

Unlike their village neighbors, the last thing one can accuse either man of is ambiguity about the Khmer Rouge regime or their role in it.

Khieu Samphan, 73, the Paris-educated intellectual-cum-revolutionary who fled to the Cambodian jungle in the 1960s and eventually became president of Democratic Kampuchea, has written a book
and employed a celebrity French lawyer to prove his innocence.

The book, which will shortly be available in French and Khmer, is a defense of his role in the Khmer Rouge and of his ignorance of the crimes during the 1975 to 1979 Democratic Kampuchea period.

In December, Khieu Samphan publicly acknowledged that “systematic killing” had occurred during the regime, but swore he knew nothing of it.

The S-21 torture center, inside the barbed-wire-topped walls of Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng high school, was an “institution of the State,” a “real part of this regime,” wrote Khieu Samphan in a letter, but added that he knew nothing of its existence until he saw a recently made documentary.

“Before, I thought [the deaths resulted from] the inevitable turmoil because we had just emerged from war,” Khieu Samphan wrote. But his nostalgia for a more idyllic Khmer Rouge revolution became apparent when he noted his admiration for Pol Pot, who, he said, had sacrificed his whole life for their movement.

Khieu Samphan was too busy for an interview earlier this month; he was putting the final touches on his book.

It had been a hectic month by all accounts. His long-time friend and new lawyer, Jacques Verges, had spent several days in Pailin in January, likely preparing the legal path for the defense of his
well-known Khmer Rouge friend.

Verges has been described as the “international villain’s lawyer of last resort,” a title earned after he defended ex-SS officer Klaus Barbie and terror king Carlos the Jackal, advised Slobodan Milosevic and recently offered to represent Saddam Hussein in court.

Khieu Samphan’s brightly painted house was closed and shuttered on a recent visit. But nearby, through a window without glass or curtains, a white-haired man sat soaking up the first rays of sunshine on a windy and slightly chilly Saturday morning in Pailin.

Brother No 2 Nuon Chea, 76, the former ideologue of the Khmer Rouge movement and the man who was closest to Pol Pot, was watching the road for visitors.

His revolutionary days over, Nuon Chea appeared to be taking no chances with the early morning chill, wearing a large gray-colored fleece pullover the brand name Champion woven in large letters across the backÑtwo undershirts, beige polyester pants and thick woolly socks, the type worn by hikers in less temperate climes.

Shuffling around his spartan and surprisingly frugal house, Nuon Chea, the face long-associated with Cambodia’s most brutal regime, donned a pair of rose-tinted glasses set in large silver frames.

“Does anyone else feel cold?” he asked as the visitors ascended narrow, wooden steps, entered
his house and sat at a table adorned with a bowl of oranges.

Despite his grandfatherly appearance, Nuon Chea remains an unrequited revolutionary whose life project is his devotion to the Khmer Rouge struggle, or more accurately, he said, Cambodia’s long struggle against “foreign invaders.”

He is a man who speaks candidly about the cost of changing society a necessary and, ultimately, human cost. He talks proudly about the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, but very carefully about the mass killing. Mostly he rejects the accusations off-hand, but at other times flashes of Nuon Chea’s fanatical past appear, and when he admits that “mistakes” were made, one glimpses a man who believes his regime’s intentions far outweighed their price in human life.

“This is the situation: If you are far away from the Khmer Rouge, you think of the bad thing, but if you are close to the Khmer Rouge you will know about our movement and our heart,” he said, rebuffing early on in the interview history’s account of his own fearsome reputation and his regime’s brutality.

Sitting upright with his back to an open window with teddy bear-print curtains, Nuon Chea said his retirement was spent instructing his children and grandchildren in following the correct path through life.

He has lived in this small stilt house, with Khieu Samphan as a neighbor, since they both surrendered to the government in December 1998.

Nuon Chea explained that the land he lives on doesn’t belong to him, but belongs to the daughter of Ieng Sary, the former Khmer Rouge foreign minister. He said he has nothing of monetary value and is happy that way.

“People have different needs. The Cambodian people are still poor, so for my living condition, this is suitable for me. However, I am still better off than the poorest people,” he said.

He continued, morphing Buddhism and nationalism to explain how materialism dulls the senses and results in a lost of patriotic zeal.

“If we live in a wasteful way, we do not care for the nation. If we have fair living conditions, we love our country more and there is more love for the people…. Buddhism teaches us to love the nation, to live anonymously, otherwise we become selfish and we do not think of the nation,” he said.

Had, in old age, religion replaced an earlier passion for communist politics? Nuon Chea answered in suitably dialectic terms, “Buddhism is politics. Politics is Buddhism.”

Humans, he lamented, “follow their nature, they are competitive and become greedy, angry and
confused, so there is no peace.”

Though appearing content to muse on the suffering of human bondage and the eight-fold path to a nationalistic nirvana, Nuon Chea also had some thoughts on changing society in the 21st century.

“The situation before and now is different. In the 1950s the world had two parts: Socialism and capitalism. Both were fighting with each other. So the people were then thinking about what is good and what is bad.

The people were divided and they had to choose,” he said.

“Today, the situation is that there is only one [system]. The people see only one, so the people have difficulty in analyzing [the situation]. But even though there is only one [system], the truth is still the same,” he said, speaking in Khmer, but finishing with a quote by Albert Einstein in English: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

He continued, this time in English and French, “We shall need a radically new [manner of] thinking if
mankind is to survive,” he said, using another Einstein quote.

“What I am proud about myself is little, but for my people and nation I am proud,” he said.

“Cambodian people have always struggled in difficulty. I am one among a million people, so I am proud to be born a Khmer. During the French colony they looked down on the Khmer people. They said Khmers were uneducated, stupid. But the Khmer struggled and chased the French colonialists out of our country. Later Cambodia was returned under King Norodom Sihanouk.”

But Cambodia was not allowed to live peacefully.

“In 1970 the US supported [General] Lon Nol to topple the King. The Khmer people rose up and struggled to protect the neutrality, independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of the nation. So we achieved our victory between 1970 and 1975,” he added.

The Khmer Rouge attempted to “create a clean society where people had food and clothes, and could study and love each other as brother and sister,” he said.

But enemies destroyed “the political principles of our Democratic Kampuchea. They tried to insert their spies in our party to stir up trouble and destroy the cooperatives.”

“They…chased Pol Pot away.

So they destroyed our Democratic Kampuchea principle,” he said, adding that Vietnam’s ousting of their regime led to more than a decade of fighting.

Nuon Chea took a break when a mobile telephone rang in the next room. The phone blasting out a synthesized rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” was brought to him. He seemed a little unfamiliar with the technology, and said he hadn’t chosen the Jackson tune. He wasn’t a fan, it
came with the phone.

“I never thought of myself as a leader. I was only the person that served the people. The revolution was to serve the people. It was revolution for the people,” he continued. “I was not successful in
[attaining] my ideals. Many people are still poor, diseased, uneducated.”

“Now I am a simple citizen. But I still keep my ideals. When I die my ideals will survive so my death will keep [those ideals] for the new generation.”

Nuon Chea’s recollections which sounded more rose-tinted than his eye glasses refused to flounder on the documented mass killing and the slave labor under which millions toiled, starved, became sick and died during Democratic Kampuchea.

“I disagree. This is not the truth. [Tuol Sleng] is the fake thing. They created this in order to fight against Democratic Kampuchea. They struggled with Democratic Kampuchea but could not win, so they used this bad way,” he said of the genocide museum in Phnom Penh.

“Let them say that but [I am not a killer] my heart is different.

Look at the people, you must look at their ideals,” he said.

There is substantial and compelling evidence that Nuon Chea played a leading role in the regime’s execution policies, Stephen Heder and Brian Tittemore wrote in their 2001 report “Seven Candidates for Prosecution: Accountability for the Crimes of the Khmer Rouge.”

Kang Kek Iev, better known as “Brother Duch,” the former commandant of S-21, is quoted in the report as claiming he took orders directly from Nuon Chea.

“For some people,” Duch recalled, “Nuon Chea wanted me to give him pictures of their dead bodies for proof [that they had in fact been executed]. He ordered me to bring pictures of dead
bodies to his office.”

Duch also recounted how, before the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea ordered him to kill the last prisoners at S-21.

“I asked Nuon Chea to allow me to keep one Vietnamese prisoner alive to use for propaganda on the radio, and he replied, ÔKill them all. We can always get more and more.'”

Nuon Chea’s wife arrived, carrying her grandson up the steps to their house. The matronly woman said hello and put down the 3-year-old, who went bashfully to the table where his grandfather was

Nuon Chea diverged to the question of who he supports to be the next US president, bearing in mind that Democratic party hopeful Senator John Kerry came to Cambodia twice in 2000 to push the government on setting up a Khmer Rouge trial.

“Whoever will be president of the United States I don’t mind as long as they don’t interfere in Cambodian affairs. If they help Cambodia I am happy, if they do not, I don’t care,” he said.

Democratic Kampuchea strove to be self-sufficient, but “bad elements” had sabotaged the regime’s goals, said Nuon Chea, adding that he would use his presence at a Khmer Rouge tribunal to explain this to a world that still largely knows nothing about his movement.

“That’s why I need to explain to the world. I don’t want them to understand or know me. I want them to understand the movement and its political principles. I am not important.”

Asked what figure most accurately reflected the number of people killed during the regimeÑ100,000 or one million people Nuon Chea answered with a question.

“I do not say the number but we made some mistakes. But in principle we were right. I do not reject that people died during that time. But the main question is to ask who killed the people, and why?”

“The Democratic Kampuchea ideal was to make the nation survive. But it was only the bad people and the extremists, we…,” he said, stopped in mid-sentence by his ringing phone.

He continued a little later: “We needed to change [the officials] all the time. But we lacked the ability to strictly watch and check [their work],” he said.

Though many have made the comparisons, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime could not be likened to the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, he added.

“It was different. I don’t know about Bosnia or Rwanda, but I know about Cambodia. Cambodia was invaded and the people rose up and fought. This is clear. The invaders were pushed out. So who is right and who is wrong? They were the invaders.”

And the bodies in the mass graves at Chheoung Ek, and the documented victims of Tuol Sleng prison?

“The bad people faked it. They controlled us for many years so they can invent this…. They wanted to crack down on our national spirit. This is bigger than Tuol Sleng and Chhoeung Ek. The national spirit was broken,” he said.

Comparing Pol Pot to Hitler was incorrect also, Nuon Chea said.

“It is very different between Hitler and Pol Pot. Hitler invaded people but Pol Pot fought the invader. Who did Pol Pot ever invade?” he said, adding that Pol Pot was a patriot who devoted his life to Cambodia and, in the process, died a landless pauper.

“I said many times I will go to the court. If there is a court or there is no court, that’s OK,” he

But the international community would be better served by keeping the money that will be spent on a trial and using it to alleviate poverty in Cambodia, he said, adding that international standards of justice only suited the powerful.

“How much will the trial cost? $40 million? Where will the money go? It will go to foreign judges. They will extend their work for a long time. They should keep this money to help the people,” he said, adding that he wanted his trial to be over in one day and that he will not appeal in order to save money” International standards? How are the quality of international standards?…. There is no justice in the world…. Only the strong are right. Bush attacked Iraq against the UN’s wishes. Why have
the UN not said anything? But we struggled to free our people, so is there justice?”

He quips that at his age a prison sentence means little and that the home of every true patriot is the prison yard.

Where there are “no prisons there are no patriots. The prison is the country where patriots are,” he said.

Scorning the title of the Documentation Center of Cambodia’s publication on the Khmer Rouge, “Searching for the Truth,” Nuon Chea alluded to the center’s funding from the US.

“To find out the truth? Can [DC-CAM Director Youk Chhang] find the truth inside himself or from
outside?” he said.

“If you are finding the truth, have you found the American B-52s bombing for 300 days and nights? How many Cambodians were killed and how many animals were killed?… This is the quality of the

“Only the people who have suffered or were oppressed understand the truth.”

Nuon Chea discussed several other subjects, ate a bowl of warm corn porridge and laughed at how easily Saddam Hussein was captured, and how it was a poor show of judgment on the former Iraq leader to hide in a hole without an escape door.

“My cave is the people. Hussein had no people, he only had the cave,” he said. “Ask the people in Pailin. Some people love me.”

But Pailin is not as it once was, and as Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea revise history in their latter years, ambiguity has crept into the opinions of even their former fighters in Burning Tank Village.

“[The people] respect Khieu Samphan the most because they understand that Khieu Samphan
had no power during the three years. Even the killing he did not know about,” said Van Dy, from his vantage point over the tanks.

But Nuon Chea was much closer to Pol Pot, he said. His neighbor Meas Sok Chea did not agree.

“I never saw [Nuon Chea] do anything wrong,” she said.

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