A chilling visit with Pol Pot's `brother'

27 years after Cambodia's genocide, court hopes leaders will explain terror

By Evan Osnos
Tribune foreign correspondent

February 17, 2006


PAILIN, Cambodia -- Brother No. 2 sees few visitors at his home in the jungle.
He is old now, and something in his chest whistles when he laughs at the word
"genocide."

Nuon Chea is the most senior surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian
utopian movement that swept to power in 1975 behind revolutionary Pol Pot, known
as Brother No. 1, and led one of the 20th Century's most extreme and enigmatic
frenzies of bloodletting.

For years, the question of why it happened--and how it might be prevented from
happening again--has met only silence or denials from the few who hold the
answers. But the world is about to find out whether these secretive former
leaders will unravel the mystery of why Cambodia killed nearly a quarter of its
population.

"I acknowledge there was killing," Nuon Chea said at his two-room wood house
beside the heavily mined border with Thailand. "But who controlled it?"

Ending years of delays, Cambodia and the United Nations are preparing to open a
tribunal to offer the first full accounting of how, from 1975 to 1979, the Khmer
Rouge turned this cultured Southeast Asian country into a labor camp, emptied
cities, made torturers out of children and caused the death of 1.7 million
people.

A bright, modern courthouse has been built on the edge of Cambodia's capital,
Phnom Penh, and UN officials arrived this month to start work. The tribunal is
set to begin investigations in June, and Nuon Chea and perhaps six other former
leaders are expected to go on trial in the summer of 2007.

Pol Pot died in 1998, never prosecuted, and Nuon Chea and others say they are
ready to explain their actions.

"We must go to court to fight," Nuon Chea said. "I will go to make them
understand what happened."

The mission is as much about the future as the past. Cambodian political-rights
activists hope that calling Nuon Chea and others to account will mend the last
open wound from the Khmer Rouge: an enduring culture of impunity and corruption
that represses free speech and stifles Cambodia's redevelopment. Scholars and
diplomats also hope the tribunal will show troubled countries such as Sudan and
Iraq that neighbor-on-neighbor violence eventually will be exposed, no matter
how old or opaque.

"As a world, we always say, `Never again,'" said Youk Chhang, director of the
Phnom Penh-based Documentation Center of Cambodia, which has collected 50,000
interviews and mountains of files to aid a trial. "But already people are
looking at Sudan and asking if we are watching the first genocide of the 21st
Century."

A tangled history is written in Nuon Chea's deeply lined face. At 78, his
lantern jaw has shrunk, but he retains the broad shoulders and hard gaze of a
soldier, a self-styled patriot in the Cold War struggle over Indochina.

A vision turned bloody

Born to a wealthy Chinese-Cambodian family under French rule, he studied law in
Thailand and returned to join Pol Pot's Maoist insurrection in the 1950s. They
defeated a U.S.-backed government and marched into Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975,
evacuating the city and launching the radical communization intended to return
Cambodia to the glory of its 13th Century Angkor kingdom.

It went horribly wrong. As deputy general secretary of the Communist Party, Nuon
Chea was the architect of execution policy, according to genocide scholars
Stephen Heder and Brian Tittemore. That included turning a Phnom Penh school
into the jail known as S-21, where 14,000 men, women and children were shackled
to the floor while teenage jailers used electricity, suffocation and scorpions
to encourage confessions. Just 14 prisoners survived.

"I was aware of some killing--just some killing--but how could I have controlled
it? There were too many factors," Nuon Chea said, softening his one-time denial
that he never knew of any deaths.

Nuon Chea is not ready to explain why so many had to die or be tortured, except
to say that the U.S. bombing of Cambodia in 1969-73 had taught his people to use
any force necessary.

"That bombing was the primary factor that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge,"
he said.

Known as the "silent brother" for his secrecy, he has given scattered interviews
over the years; he agreed to talk this time because of the approaching trial.

In a thin white shirt and plaid sarong, he sat in the living room on a plastic
chair. The tablecloth on the dining table was adorned with pictures of teddy
bears. He showed alternating flashes of defiance and remorse--contrasting hints
that in court he might either clam up or speak freely. He dismissed any mention
of the word genocide but conceded he has regrets.

"I have remorse. And pain," he said as his wife played with a grandchild nearby.
"It's not enough just to say that I'm remorseful. I will say more [in court]."

It is revealing that Nuon Chea and others live freely in Cambodia. Only two
senior Khmer Rouge leaders are in prison, while the rest live privately among
survivors. As Indochina expert Nayan Chanda put it, "Imagine Germany in 1946
with Himmler walking free."

The tribunal is expected to convene for three years, with a year each for
investigation, trial and appeal. Legal scholars debate how tribunal authorities,
composed of 200 Cambodians and 100 foreigners, will choose to apply genocide or
crimes against humanity charges.

Neither the charges nor a formal list of defendants has been announced. . But
over the years scholars have focused on seven leaders, with evidence against
them detailed in Heder and Tittemore's book "Seven Candidates for Prosecution."

The trial will force Cambodia to pose painful questions of itself: Why was this
revolution more brutal than those of other countries? What allowed decent people
to look away from or join acts of such great cruelty?

"There are so many Cambodians, particularly young people, who just don't believe
that these crimes happened," said Craig Etcheson, a Cambodia specialist who has
helped prepare the tribunal. "They think this must have been some evil external
force--it must be China, Vietnam, the Americans who did this."

That failure in justice is one reason, many Cambodians believe, that Prime
Minister Hun Sen has abused national courts to silence critics and arrest human-
rights advocates. Tribunal organizers hope the $56.3 million trial system will
showcase international standards of justice, permit several dozen ordinary
Cambodians to speak as witnesses and set a new bar for Cambodian law.

Focusing on leaders

The trial is not expected to reach into lower ranks of the Khmer Rouge--in part
because many still work in government--but getting the leaders off the streets
might be enough to satisfy people like 59-year-old Nop Paul, a former civil
servant whose four brothers and one sister died under the regime. Like many, he
is hopeful but wary about the trial, worried the government will stifle
disclosures that could challenge its power.

"We used to say that our history is like muddy water," he said at his office
down the dusty road from Nuon Chea's home. "But now the water is clearing."

After most of an hour, Nuon Chea said he needed to rest. But first he offered a
fable he said would capture Cambodia's tumble through history: A wolf accuses a
lamb of insulting him, eating in his pasture and fouling a nearby brook. The
lamb refutes each charge, yet in the end the wolf eats him anyway. Nuon Chea
roared with laughter.

"You see?" he said. "What powerful people say will always be right, and what
small people say will always be wrong."