Nuon Chea Breaks Silence to Question Journalist

Forty years after Elizabeth Becker was granted an audience with murderous Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot during the secretive Democratic Kampuchea regime, the American journalist on Wednesday faced questions from his second-in-command.

Nuon Chea, or “Brother Number Two,” who is being tried at the Khmer Rouge tribunal for crimes against humanity and genocide along with fellow regime leader Khieu Samphan, put two questions to Ms. Becker at the start of her third day as an expert witness at the trial.

Elizabeth Becker addresses the Khmer Rouge tribunal yesterday. (ECCC)
Elizabeth Becker addresses the Khmer Rouge tribunal on Wednesday. (ECCC)

He first asked the former Washington Post correspondent to explain why the U.S. government dropped about 3 million tons of bombs on Cambodia during the early 1970s, killing many innocent people and destroying homes, rice fields and pagodas.

Ms. Becker said the U.S. government’s reason was its support for Lon Nol’s administration. Of the intense bombing campaign in 1973, she added: “That was the result of the fear at that stage of, one, that the Khmer Republic would lose, and two, the belief by then the administration of Richard Nixon that by bombing, the Khmer Rouge would come to the negotiation table.”

Asked, secondly, whether she was of the opinion that the U.S. government was solely responsible for the tragedy its bombings inflicted on Cambodian people, Ms. Becker replied: “Of course.”

Following the break in the morning session, Nuon Chea retired to watch the proceedings via video link from a holding cell on account of his poor health.

International lead co-lawyer for the civil parties, Marie Guiraud, then noted that Nuon Chea had “chosen” to be absent during previous hearings when civil parties were speaking about the crimes they witnessed during the Khmer Rouge era but sat through an entire session of Ms. Becker’s evidence.

“[H]e had promised us at the beginning of the trial that he would participate in the hearings and he systematically refused to answer the questions that were put to him by the civil parties,” she said.

“And we note today that he chose to break his right to remain silent to put questions to Ms. Becker, who is a kind of ‘VIP.’”

During the afternoon session, the author of “When The War Was Over” was asked by Anta Guisse, international co-lawyer for Khieu Samphan, whether she considered her book to be the work of a journalist or an academic.

Ms. Guisse read an excerpt from a 1986 article by well-respected historian David Chandler criticizing Ms. Becker’s methodology, which he said was not sufficiently thorough, for her “ignorance of Khmer,” which he said had led her to make mistakes, and for failing to properly attribute ideas taken from other sources.

Ms. Becker said she knew that Mr. Chandler had written to academics asking them not to use her book as teaching material, but expressed surprise at the criticism in the article.

“Every single journalist who has a book, you’ll find a nice David Chandler blurb saying ‘This is really great,’ so he used [this criticism] on one journalist that I could see. And that is me. And I would note that I am the only woman journalist who wrote such a book,” she said.

Hearings at the tribunal continue on Thursday.

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