pailin – As Nuon Chea nears the end of his life and reflects on the more than 50 years he spent struggling for independence and guiding the Khmer Rouge, he can’t even call his home his own.
His wooden house belongs to the daughter of former Khmer Rouge Deputy Premier Ieng Sary and the land he lives on is owned by Pailin Governor Y Chhien, a former Khmer Rouge commander.
“But I’m not disappointed even though I’m poor because I fulfilled my duty to my nation and to Buddhism,” Nuon Chea said. “The struggle was a success, but it is for the people, not for me. I took a small part in it for the nation.”
The ailing 74-year-old spoke to journalists for two hours on June 1 in his first interview in two decades. He says he feels sorry for the more than 1 million Cambodians who died under the Khmer Rouge regime, but he denies any knowledge of the brutality and killings that marked those years.
And though he knows that the Khmer Rouge is despised by many and there is a push to bring him to trial, Nuon Chea said he still feels proud that he participated in a movement that liberated Cambodia.
“Remember that it was done by Khmers for Khmers,” he said. “Khmers got up against the foreign invaders.”
Nuon Chea, known as Brother No 2, was considered to be Pol Pot’s right-hand man and one of the most enigmatic of the Khmer Rouge leaders. He was the political ideologue of the regime and the philosophies of abolishing money and the need for almost total secrecy are largely credited to him.
“There were many things I had to deal with during the struggle,” he said. “It was not easy but life and death is a part of everything. I had problems with my heart because I had to think a lot. I had to think about policies for the people, the armed forces, the enemies.”
After the Khmer Rouge imploded and Pol Pot died in April 1998, Nuon Chea and Khmer Rouge nominal leader Khieu Samphan defected to the government in December 1998. They came to Phnom Penh as guests of Prime Minister Hun Sen; it was Nuon Chea’s first time in the capital since he fled from Vietnamese troops in January 1979.
Nuon Chea said people often ask him why he didn’t defect earlier, as Ieng Sary did in 1996, when thousands of cadre joined the government and crippled the Khmer Rouge.
“My idea is that when fighting, the leader must go first,” he said. “And when you retreat, the leader must be the last. Our group was the last and we decided to integrate for unity and national reconciliation.”
Though Nuon Chea said he would appear in court if called for a Khmer Rouge tribunal, he believes a trial would disrupt the fragile peace that Cambodia has recently been enjoying.
“If we think about the small things, we will have problems and disputes,” he said. “And then our country can’t be prosperous.”
He also added that “I love justice, but it does not exist in this world.”
These days, Nuon Chea spends his time playing with his 3-year-old grandson, tending his farm and listening to the radio, including programs in Vietnamese, which he learned when he was trained by Vietnamese communists.
But he is slowed by poor health. He had a mild heart attack at the end of May and has had problems with his blood pressure since 1961. He is also unable to fully use his left hand because of a stroke.
“The last of my life is here,” Nuon Chea said, looking around his home. “Now I just want to be quiet.”
As he worries about his health, he also is concerned about King Norodom Sihanouk, who is a few years older than Nuon Chea. He has heard reports of the King being sick, which makes him worried about the prospects of lasting reconciliation.
“I hope the King lives for a long time to unite Cambodia,” Nuon Chea said. “I want all Cambodians to be healthy, have land and education. They are the reasons why I joined the struggle.”
Nuon Chea was 20 when he joined the movement in Thailand, where he was studying. He joined the communist party in Thailand and when he returned to Cambodia in 1950, he continued his work with the Cambodian leftists.
Since then, he has seen the world go through many changes, and he says now is the time for globalization. He wants all countries to be friends on an equal level and not encroach on each other’s territories, especially the Vietnamese, Chinese, Thais and Laotians.
“I am not a nationalist; a nationalist is very narrow,” he said. “I am a patriot; a patriot is very wide. But that doesn’t mean I will let you invade me. I have the right to protect myself.”
Nuon Chea compares Cambodia to a sick person, and it will take a long time for the country to get better. And unlike the Khmer Rouge attitude of xenophobia, he acknowledges that Cambodia needs foreign assistance. “How can a sick person get up and be like Mike Tyson?”
At the same time, he bemoans the deteriorating morality of today’s society, and said he wants to upgrade people’s values.
“Today, the property covers the people and personal interest is high, so morals are going down,” he said. “When I was educated, I mostly learned about morality and when I trained others, I taught them morality.
“Knowledge has to take morality as its basis. If you have only knowledge and leave out morality, then your knowledge is useless.”
When asked about how he views himself, Nuon Chea points to a picture of a Buddha, which refers to his time as a monk in Thailand before he joined the communist movement. Then he points to a picture below it of a dragon fighting a tiger, which refers to his time in the independence movement.
“If you are a monk, you are a monk forever,” Nuon Chea said. “And if you struggle, then you struggle forever.”