For a former Khmer Rouge soldier, his hands were soft-looking as his fingers clasped and unclasped the base of his microphone while reporters fired questions.
Dressed in a white shirt with a utilitarian black watch strapped to his wrist, Khem Nguon looked more the like a provincial bureaucrat than a guerrilla leader.
Three days after Ta Mok’s chief of staff announced his defection along with seven other Khmer Rouge commanders, Khem Nguon made his first appearance in Phnom Penh since 1975 at a Ministry of Information press conference.
Less than eight months after he told the Far Eastern Economic Review he would rather shoot himself than work with Prime Minister Hun Sen, Khem Nguon said he was ready to be reconciled with the government.
“I never said I would commit suicide. It is too weak to commit suicide,” he said when asked about the Hun Sen quote. “Our defection is not related to politics, but because we respect the law and the Constitution.”
Little is known about Khem Nguon’s personal history beyond his role as one of Khmer Rouge military chief Ta Mok’s most trusted lieutenants.
From the outset of the press conference Monday, Khem Nguon often made direct eye contact with reporters asking questions, and he smiled liberally.
Khem Nguon said he is 49 and had joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970. In 1975, he was sent to China to study for five years, missing the height of the 1975-1978 Khmer Rouge atrocities, he said.
He said he has most recently been responsible for the “political section” in Anlong Veng, the nerve center for Khmer Rouge military operations for the last eight years.
With Pol Pot’s “arrest” after Ta Mok seized control of the rebel force in June 1997, the Far Eastern Economic Review said Khem Nguon rose to power as the highest-ranking military officer in the Khmer Rouge and second only to Khieu Samphan on a nine-member standing committee.
Khem Nguon has recently tried to establish alliances with opposition parties against Hun Sen and the Vietnamese, the Review has reported.
But now, with Hun Sen as prime minister, Khem Nguon said he is content to pave the way toward peace—and a new public relations battle.
Later on in the hour-long press conference, Khem Nguon’s smile began to slip and he seemed embarrassed as much for the reporters as for himself, having to answer their relentless questions.
Khem Nguon left his personal future an open question.
“I am not political, I am not military…Next time, I will tell you,” he protested to a reporter.
As the press conference ended, Khem Nguon gave only a brief response to a question about his first impressions of Phnom Penh after decades of living mostly in the jungle. “Very good, very beautiful. Yes, thank you, thank you,” he said, and quickly walked away.
(Additional reporting by Marc Levy, Kimsan Chantara, and Saing Soenthrith)