Millions of Cambodians will go to Buddhist pagodas Oct 11 for Pchum Ben, bearing food and prayers for their ancestors. Nuon Chea will not be among them.
Nuon Chea, who at 82 is the most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leader, will pass the holiday in his prison cell at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge outlawed Buddhism during their 1975 to 1979 reign.
Son Arun, Nuon Chea’s lawyer, said his client has been reading lots of books about Buddhism in his cell.
“I brought [a statue] for him to pray for Buddhism, but they are not allowed because this is concrete stuff,” he said.
“They are afraid he might commit suicide,” he added. Lighters, candles, and incense—all central to Pchum Ben pagoda rituals—have also been banned from the detention facility, he said.
Nuon Say, one of Nuon Chea’s sons, said his father went to the pagoda every year after his 1998 defection to the government. He said 10 family members will go to Wat Prum Kiri Morakot on Oct 11 in his stead.
Though there will be no trip to the pagoda, ECCC spokesman Reach Sambath said the tribunal treats Nuon Chea exceptionally well. “He is a VIP detainee,” he said. “He has a lot of rights which we never had before in Cambodia history. He has rights to read Buddhism books, read newspapers, watch TV, and watch cable TV.”
Nuon Chea’s fellow detainee, S-21 prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch, is a Christian convert. “There is no need for him to go to pagoda,” Reach Sambath said.
Former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, 77, will go to a pagoda Oct 11, with an offering of “trey khor” or sweet-fish soup, according to his wife, So Socheat, 57. “We will pray for everyone,” she said.
Nuon Chea’s wife, Ly Kimseng, 71, said by phone from her Pailin home that she planned to cook some of Nuon Chea’s favorite foods—fried squid with pepper, fried mixed-vegetables and fish soup—and take them to Wat Prum Kiri Morakot in Pailin to offer to the ancestors.
“I pray to Buddha to help him and wish him good health,” she said.