In several hours of testimony at the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday, Pol Pot’s second-in-command, Nuon Chea, laid out his own version of history in which all the sufferings of the Cambodian people were caused by the covert machinations of the Vietnamese.
The Khmer Rouge, he said, were not “bad people” or criminals—in fact, as devout Cambodian Buddhists, they could not possibly have committed the crimes they are accused of, Nuon Chea insisted.
“I am very honest here, so I don’t want everyone to misunderstand that it was Cambodian people who were responsible for the war crimes or other crimes read out a while ago,” he said. “Everything was under the control of Vietnam from the Hanoi headquarters or the Ho Chi Minh headquarters, so these crimes—war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide—were not from Cambodian people. It was Vietnamese who killed Cambodians.”
While in power, the Khmer Rouge were notoriously obsessed with the threat posed by Vietnam. Nuon Chea and his co-defendants, former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and head of state Khieu Samphan, are all charged with committing genocide against ethnic Vietnamese, who were systematically arrested and murdered during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Of the roughly 20,000 Vietnamese living in Cambodia in April 1975, nearly all were dead by 1979. And the bloody purges that convulsed the Khmer Rouge towards the end of its rule were spurred by its leaders’ convictions that Vietnamese agents were infiltrating them from within.
Nuon Chea’s testimony yesterday gave some insight into the mindset that led to such policies. As a young and fervently patriotic Communist returning home from a lengthy stay in Thailand, he remembered his dismay at the discovery that in Cambodia’s burgeoning revolutionary movement, “everything was under the control of Vietnam. Even the cooks were Vietnamese.”
Comparing Vietnam to “a python strangling a young deer,” Nuon Chea described the frustration he and Pol Pot felt as they attempted to wrest control of the Communist Party of Kampuchea away from the Vietnamese, the dominant Communist force in the region at the time.
At times yesterday Nuon Chea waxed nostalgic or sentimental-he recalled weeping openly when he heard buffalo herders singing a patriotic song-but he never strayed far from the topic apparently closest to his heart: his fear and hatred of Vietnam. Addressing the youth of Cambodia, he warned that the threat of Vietnamese encroachment was still present and recommended constant vigilance.
Although Nuon Chea has argued he is unfit to stand trial because of difficulty concentrating, he revealed himself to have an iron grip on dates, titles, and subtle distinctions in terminology. He appeared deeply irritated after he misunderstood Judge Silvia Cartwright to have called him the “deputy chairman” of the Communist Party of Kampuchea rather than the “deputy secretary.”
“We should use these terms separately, and I don’t want to have confusion,” he rebuked her.
Nuon Chea’s performance in the dock was reminiscent of S-21 Commandant Kaing Guek Eav, best known as Duch, who was a strikingly active participant in his own 2009 war crimes trial. Like Duch, Nuon Chea even carried a binder filled with documents and handwritten notes.
But while Duch is just 69 years old, Nuon Chea is 85 and suffers from a number of age-related medical problems, including the aftereffects of a stroke. Yesterday’s hearing adjourned early after Nuon Chea pronounced himself “rather exhausted” and said his heart was giving him trouble.
He is expected to continue testifying today.