KR Leaders Finishing Their Days in Isolation

pailin – Before the killings, before the fighting, before their names were hated and feared, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan had a dream to liberate their country and enough fire in their bellies to try to make those dreams come true.

A lifetime later, as their country rebuilds after the destruction they helped cause, the two former leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Cambo­dians lead a quiet life in near isolation.

They declined the numerous requests from journalists to speak about the past. But it doesn’t matter, because the lives that were changed forever and the people who are no longer here are the constant reminders of what came before.

Still, the answers they hold of what happened during one of the most violent periods in recent Cambodian history are in danger of being lost forever when they die.

“It is not because I don’t want to talk,” said a frail Nuon Chea, who spoke briefly to a Cambodia Daily reporter at his Pailin home. “It is because my health is not good. If I speak or think a lot, it has an affect on my health.”

The signs of aging are evident. His left eye is a bit swollen and he is unable to move his right hand. He complains of problems with his blood pressure and his breath­ing grows quicker and tighter after a few minutes of speaking. “I am not fine,” he said. “If I sit for long, I feel exhausted.”

Neighbors and others say Khieu Samphan is in better health than his old friend Nuon Chea. He, too, declined to speak to any journalists.

“He is not in politics any more,” said Som Sochheang, 35, Khieu Samphan’s son-in-law. “He doesn’t want to meet journalists because it could have an affect on politics. Now there is calm and he doesn’t want to do anything to disturb the peace.”

They are described by their neighbors as “ordinary,” “simple” and “normal.” Nuon Chea, now 73, spends his day listening to the radio and reading books about Buddhism, while fellow Pailin resident  Khieu Samphan, 68, teaches math and literature to his grandchildren.

Twenty-five years ago, their lives could not have been more different. As a member of the Central Committee of the Com­munist Party and its Standing Committee, Nuon Chea played a key role in deciding the policies of Democratic Kampu­chea. In 1976, he was named prime minister of Democratic Kampuchea to temporarily re­place Pol Pot, and remained one of the top leaders of the regime as part of Pol Pot’s inner circle.

Lacking Pol Pot’s reported charm and charisma, Nuon Chea came across as somewhat cruel and coarse during his years with the Khmer Rouge. He helped formulate some of the extremist measures of the Khmer Rouge, such as abolishing money and the mentality of ridding the regime of those considered to be impure.

Neighbors now describe Nuon Chea as a family man who is visited every few days by one of his two children, who give him about $13 a month for food. He lives in a modest home that has a bedroom and exercise area.

“He almost never has visitors [from outside his family] and he doesn’t have a television,” said Nay Kim Sothear, 21, one of Nuon Chea’s eight full-time bodyguards.

Kong Leakna, deputy chief of the military police office in Pailin, described it as a “sad, lonely, boring life.”

“In Buddhism, he’s getting back his karma,” he said. “During his time in power, he did not lead the country well, he didn’t take care of the people well.”

Khieu Samphan was involved in politics long before he joined the Khmer Rouge as a member of parliament during the rule of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Many of the younger cadre looked up to him as an intellectual and a champion of social justice.

He was one of Pol Pot’s most trusted colleagues, and during Democratic Kampuchea he was the public face of the regime. After the Khmer Rouge were forced to flee into the jungles following Vietnam’s 1979 invasion of the country, Khieu Samphan was named prime minister of the regime.

Now he rarely goes outside and is happy to be a “normal person,” Som Sochheang said. Though he talks to neighbors and others he knows, he does not speak to people he considers outsiders.

“He’s free, but he does not go out,” Som Sochheang said. “He stays only at his house because he has nothing to do outside.”

A woman who has been living in Pailin for three years said Khieu Samphan told her he wanted to be “an ordinary person” and live the rest of his life taking care of his children and grandchildren.

“He likes taking care of his plants early in the morning when there [are] not a lot of people around. When strange people come in the area, he goes inside.”

Although they are described as simple people, it is clear Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan have a different status than their neighbors. Local authorities emphasized that journalists would need permission from the government to interview them.

“If you want to meet Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, you must get permission from…the Phnom Penh leadership,” said Keo Horn, third deputy governor of Pailin. “If [Nuon Chea or Khieu Samphan] do anything, the government will know.”

The government is especially concerned, given that it is still unsettled as to who will be tried in a tribunal for former Khmer Rouge cadre. Proponents of prosecuting all of the rebel leaders put Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan at the top of the list of those who should be tried.

“It’s up to the world and the government to decide,” Som Sochheang said. “They should do what they think they should do.”

Nuon Chea apologized for not talking about the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Khieu Samphan relayed a message through his son-in-law.

“He is sorry that he cannot meet because he is an ordinary person,” Som Sochheang reported. “He is not involved in anything. He does not join any ceremony, gathering or meeting. He said he wants to be in calm, in peace.”

 

 

Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.