Khieu Samphan And Nuon Chea Visit Phnom Penh
Returning to Phnom Penh as guests of the new government, senior Khmer Rouge leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea made vague apologies but called for Cambodians to “let bygones be bygones” and forget the more than 1 million people who died under their rule.
Khieu Samphan, who defected to the government Friday with assurances he would not be prosecuted, told a packed press conference Tuesday that no good would come from digging up the past.
“It is normal that those who have family who lost their lives, they feel some resentment,” he said. “But I think that most of our compatriots understand that we have much more problems to resolve at present and in the future, and we have to forget the past.”
The defectors, who came to the capital for the first time in years, were welcomed Tuesday by Prime Minister Hun Sen—who hosted a lunch for the pair at his Takhmau home—and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Asked later if he was prepared to apologize to the victims of the Khmer Rouge, Khieu Samphan, 67, responded with a brief “Yes, sorry, very sorry.”
Nuon Chea, 71, also expressed some remorse.
“I have great regret, not only for the people, but also for all the animals who suffered during the war,” he said in the press conference at the Royal Phnom Penh hotel.
But Khieu Samphan insisted that attempting to assign blame would be pointless. Asked if he would be willing to stand before a proposed international tribunal, he said the problem is up to Cambodians to solve.
“If we say ‘This is wrong. This is right’…then we cannot reach national reconciliation,” he said. “In our nation, the relatives and parents of some people have suffered, but history should remain history.”
During its 1975-78 rule, the radical Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge killed anyone considered an intellectual, emptied cities and forced Cambodia’s entire population to work on farming collectives.
As many as 1.7 million people are believed to have died of torture, starvation, disease or forced labor in what became known as “the killing fields.”
Khieu Samphan was a head of state of the Democratic Kampuchea government. Nuon Chea was the long-time deputy of “Brother No 1” Pol Pot, who died earlier this year at a rebel base in the jungle.
The London-based human rights group Amnesty International condemned Hun Sen’s decision to accept the pair back into society as “a tragedy for the Cambodian people.”
“This is a black day for the Cambodian people and a black day for international justice,” Amnesty’s Demelza Stubbings said. “What kind of message does it send to the Cambodian people and to the world community when those believed to be the architects of some of the worst human rights violations of the second half of the 20th century are allowed to enjoy comfortable retirement without fear of arrest or accountability?”
Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea arrived with their families at about 10 am by helicopter at Hun Sen’s residence from the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin. They were accompanied by long-time comrade Ieng Sary, who helped arrange last week’s deal. Ieng Sary himself defected in 1996 and has since enjoyed Pailin’s semi-autonomous status over its lucrative cross-border trade.
After lunch with Hun Sen, they checked into several suites at the Royal Phnom Penh hotel.
Khieu Samphan seemed relaxed and had died his snowy hair black since he was last seen in public in 1991. Nuon Chea seemed more frail, walking with a cane and staring straight ahead as he was escorted by bodyguards to his room.
It was Nuon Chea’s first time in the capital since the Democratic Kampuchea leaders fled in January 1979 ahead of the Vietnamese army.
Khieu Samphan’s arrival was more welcoming than his last visit to Phnom Penh in 1991, when he was attacked by an angry mob believed to have been organized by the CPP.
On Tuesday, however, Hun Sen greeted his long-time nemeses with handshakes in the name of national reconciliation. It was a reversal of the prime minister’s previous stance that Khieu Samphan and especially Nuon Chea should not be accepted unless they turned over Khmer Rouge military chief Ta Mok.
In another about-face, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has previously called for amnesty for Khieu Samphan, demanded the two defectors be arrested pending formation of a tribunal.
Momentum for an international tribunal to try Khmer Rouge leaders had been building until the defection deal called it into doubt.
Khieu Samphan pointed out Tuesday, however, that no one talked of putting Khmer Rouge leaders on trial in 1991, when the Paris Peace Accords were signed to end Cambodia’s civil war.
“The parties’ agreement in October 1991 underlined the need for national reconciliation, so it implicitly asked for all the Cambodians to let bygones be bygones.”
Driven from power by the invading Vietnamese army in 1979, the Khmer Rouge continued to wage a guerrilla war during the 1980s against the Hanoi-backed government of Hun Sen. They were allied with royalist and nationalist armies.
The Khmer Rouge, represented by Khieu Samphan, signed the Paris accords along with all other parties, but pulled out of the UN-administered peace process before the 1993 elections and returned to the guerrilla tactics.
The movement was then weakened by mass defections of rebel commanders. Only Ta Mok now remains at large.
“This is the end of the Khmer Rouge,” Khieu Samphan said.
(Additional reporting by Kimsan Chantara)