Nuon Chea and Implausible Deniability: Back to the War Tribunal


Witness Long Norin was too sick to testify today, which meant that former Khmer Rouge second-in-command Nuon Chea was brought into the dock to answer judge’s questions. I am not sure why he has shed his former uniform of a mugger’s ski cap and shades. Perhaps he feels a need to look more credible.

The usually verbose Chea was in fine form today – and as usual, denied all culpability for his actions, blaming the Vietnamese for the majority of the mistakes made by the Khmer Rouge.

Judge Cartwright began the questioning by hashing out if the Khmer Rouge “strategic and tactical lines,” or general policy, were in fact established at the first Party Assembly, held in September of 1960.

To this Chea responded that he and his political brethren believed “the true nature of Cambodian society is half colonel and half feudalism…Therefore, the task of the revolution of Democratic Kampuchea at that time was to eliminate the remnant of the half-colonalism, half-fuedalism.”

Some serious debate exists over whether agrarian pre-KR Cambodian even had many people equivalent to the land-owning and evil “feudalists” Chinese communists railed against.

According to Nuon Chea, the “political and armed struggle” of the Khmer Rouge only began in 1968, and was preceded by a “democratic” revolution, focused primarily on eradicating the rich and powerful.

He also claimed the early Khmer Rouge army, called the Secret Defense Unit, was used only to protect cadres and not to other aims – and that the only weapons they possessed were sticks. (He appeared to forget himself and admitted they also had knives and axes later).


“The Secret Defense Unit did not have a duty to kill or smash…. In case of neccesity – when a cadre is attacked or detained – this defense unit must protect the cadre at their best ability,” Nuon Chea told the court.

Nuon Chea did not appear to outright contest Cartwright’s statement that Khmer Rouge guerilla forces first struck the enemy at a small village near Battambang on Jan 17th, 1968 – but added the “Lon Nol Army attacked the village, and beheaded people….the Lon Nol barbarous clique…were so barbarous they acted at their own pleasure in killing people.”

Nuon Chea also denied that he gave the orders to stage the attack, claiming he was living in Samlot, and that he would have done a better job of it if he HAD ordered it. According to Chea, soon after this first attack, “volunteer villagers” took to the woods with weapons seized from the enemy.

“Wherever they resided,they would plant pumpkin seeds and they would pick the pumpkins to feed themselves…That was all they needed to be self reliant,” Chea said, in a somewhat bizarre riff on the old Johnny Appleseed trope.

According to Chea, the fully-fledged Revolutionary Army of Kampucha began “functioning” on the 12th of March, 1968 – although the 17th and 18th of January were celebrated during the KR era as the anniversary of the founding of the “Revolutionary Army.” Chea claimed he could not “remember” the dates.

Chea also worked around any allegations of Vietnamese funding or support, claiming the “revolutionary base” supported him when it came to food and clothing, often giving him salt to subsist on. As for ordinary soldiers, they contributed a single riel to the army each month – and survived on plants and animals found in the forest, as well as contributions from their families.

If you believe the entire Khmer Rouge army subsisted for years on forest-forage and the largesse of others, I have this awesome bridge in London to sell you.

As for Vietnamese arms, Chea insisted that although China did donate arms to the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam – who was responsible for transporting them -would take 1/3 of the weapons. “They made excuses – they had a confusion, or there were irregularities. That was the trick of Vietnam.”

According to Chea, Vietnam wanted to keep arms away from Cambodia because “they didn’t want us to be independent, they wanted to dominate us.”

Court attendees walk down the stairs during a break.

Chea than argued that Vietnam should be grateful to Cambodia for its assistance during the war years, instead of the other way around. “Vietnam should pay gratitude to Cambodia because they (Vietnamese soldiers) sought refuge here,” he said, referring to “50,00 soldiers stationed along the border.”

Again, he appealed to Cambodia’s youth: “I want to make this clear: who our enemies are,and who our friends are. And this is going to be useful for the younger generation. And who is indebted to whom.”

In perhaps Chea’s most ridiculous statement of the day, he claimed: “Vietnamese would bring children with them, and they would creep and crawl behind them. Once we could seize the weapons, the Vietnamese toddlers would pull the leg of the Cambodian armies,so they could not seize the weapons.”

Gotta watch out for those nefarious Vietnamese four year olds.

Cartwright moved on to discuss the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, where thousands died in a mass exodus, after being lied to and told the Americans intended on bombing the city. According to Nuon Chea, the decision to evacuate the city-dwellers first was under debate in 1973 – and a lot of it had to do (again) with Vietnam.

“If Vietnam gained their victory before us (in Saigon) they would then come to control Cambodia,” Chea said. “If Vietnam liberated before us, they would deploy their soldiers under the guise of assisting us in Phnom Penh, and than control us.” The whole thing took on the aura of a perverse race-to-the-finish.

Other reasons for this mass exodus? According to Chea, conditions in Phnom Penh were so bad – and apparently, so good in the already liberated countryside – that everybody would really be much better off that way. “There were incidents, riots, many people were unemployed, there were many beggars – soldiers did not receive their salary. And Lon Nol could not control the situation.”

After referring rather disturbingly to Lon Nol soldiers as “womanizers, players, heavy drinkers” – and we know what happened to Lon Nol soldiers found out by the Khmer Rouge – he once again referred to the sanctity of the countryside.

“We were in the countryside and we did not have an abundance of food or materials,” Chea said. “However, if you compare our livelihood there with people living in Phnom Penh, and there were about 3 million of them, we were better…we lived in cooperatives. We had one another.”

The ECCC courtroom.

As for allegations of poor treatment of “new” people, Chea outright discounted them. “People in Phnom Penh did not engage in hard labor,” he said. “When they went to cooperatives, they shared food, they transformed, those not able to do hard work to become laborers…these newly evacuated peole could not of course do as much work as local people, as they did not do it in the past…so they were only tasked to do moderate work.” He emphasized “new” people were allowed to have three meals a day “and dessert once a week.”

He blamed “bad elements” in cooperatives for the starvation and deprivation that would follow the evacuation, claiming some cooperatives” destroyed utensils, they destroyed spoons..so there was a shortage of cutlery.” (I can think of more perverse things to do, really).

Chea also claimed that whenever he or other high-level cadres went to see a work site, they were only shown healthy people and fed well. “So there were like tricks and trickery employed in certain cooperatives, mixed elements, bad elements,” he said.

“It was not easy for us at this time,” Chea admitted. “And then we were accused of killing millions of people. But in fact, who actually killed millions of people? The Democratic Party of Kampuchea sacrificed everything for the party and the people, so people would have sufficient food to eat.”

“Of course…I don’t blame everything on the Vietnamese,” he added. Just most things.

More tomorrow on the curious “Buddhism” of the Khmer Rouge, from the mouth of Nuon Chea.

An Old Farmer And the Khmer Rouge: A Civil Party at the Tribunal

Police cadets attending the ECCC Tuesday.

Another day, another live-tweeting session at the Khmer Rouge tribunals. The press room is violently air-conditioned and I am the only journalist willing to eat the “weird” Vietnamese sandwiches. Oh, yes, right, the court proceedings….

Nuon Chea has continued to beg off the dock, claiming health issues, which means that today featured one civil party and one witness. I took off after lunch – Clair Duffy was awesome enough to cover the afternoon Twitter shift.

The civil party who spoke in the morning session, a supposedly illiterate, old, and senile Ratanakiri farmer called Romam Yun delivered a startlingly eloquent account of the Khmer Rouge years, frequently using agriculture analogies to describe his experiences.

The  70-year-old Mr Yun, a member of a minority group, had moved from village to commune chief in the Khmer Rouge Northeastern zone, through some combination of coercion and initial belief in the ideology of Cambodia’s people’s revolution.

“I will not say my work with the Khmer Rouge was right or wrong, but the political line was not proper, not right,” Yun began, launching into a description of how everyone in his village was gathered to work, including the elderly and the very young.

“We were treated like pigs they could sell at any moment,” he said. “They [the Khmer Rouge] were like our parents – they were supposed to treat us well. Instead they treated us badly, they imprisoned us.”

Mr Yun recalled being summoned to a meeting and told that his “village was to be swept clean.”

Confused—his village had no grass—he asked what exactly was meant by “swept clean.”

“Sweeping cleans means getting rid of those who are not good, and leaving only the good,” he was told.

We all know what “sweeping clean” came to mean to the Khmer Rouge.

Romam Yun Wednesday describing the "Pol Pot" years

“If the village and commune were clean, there were no enemies. On the other hand, if they were not clean, there were enemies in there,” he said.

Employed as a messenger, Mr Yun said he occasionally would deliver messages to a mysterious figure in the jungle, known only as “One.” Presumably this was Saloth Sar, alias Pol Pot.

Mr Yun impressed upon the court how much was at stake when it came to “good” work under the supposed people’s revolution. “When we could not do our work properly, we were accused of being enemies,” he said.

“If we could do it, we would be spared. Otherwise, we would be killed, because we were accused of being against the revolution,” Yun said. “The village was very quiet. It was understood that if they said anything wrong, they would be accused of being against the revolution.”

What happened to the villagers who couldn’t do their jobs?

“Sometimes they were taken out into the forest. They might have been killed in the forest, because they [the Khmer Rouge leaders] were mad we could not meet the plan… They would execute people if they did anything wrong, or went against the Angkha, and then they would be subject to execution.”

Yun also described the breakdown of the village social structure: “We did not know who was who..it was confusing. People did not know their own parents and siblings. A son would beat his father.”

According to Yun, forced marriages did not seem to be common in his village, but formal marriages as we think of them became a thing of the past. “People didn’t get married,” he said. “When people loved one another, they just lived together as partners without marriage, during Pol Pot time.”

Interestingly, Yun’s Ratanakiri village, populated by minority groups with their own religious beliefs, did not seem to suffer the same violent repression Theravada Buddhism did: “No one asked us to do anything with religious affairs..communities managed our own affairs when it came to religions.”

(The fidgeting feet of saffron clad monks could be seen behind him as he said this. Monks are a fixture at the Tribunal).

Over and over in his account, this old farmer likened the Khmer Rouge years to a bad crop, a bad tree, a bad planting season.

“When I first joined the revolution, we cultivated crops, and the plants were grown very well, and yields grew some. But it was fruitless. By analogy, the policy of that [the Khmer Rouge] was very good but it did not yield any good thing for people…by analogy, the tree trunk is very good, but it bears no fruit.”

“In the present day, we have good seeds. The seeds are growing well for the next generation. But at that time, educated people were killed. So we did not have anything.”

Another Tuesday at the War Tribunal, Nate Thayer on Landmines Being Kind of OK

Monks at the War Tribunal. Despite murdering thousands of them, Khmer Rouge defendents cite how much they like monks as much as humanly possible in the courtroom.

Live-tweeting the Khmer Rouge War Tribunal for the past few days and will probably continue until Thursday. Saying it’s been “fun” veers into the realm of the vastly inappropriate, but it has been informative.

I can easily summarize Nuon Chea’s opinion on his involvement in the genocide years thusly: It Was All Those Vietnamese Douchebags Fault.

This is all extra ironic because the Vietnamese party secretary is in Phnom Penh for something or another, and Vietnamese flags have been carefully erected in seemingly every possible spot in the city. And here Nuon Chea sits in the dock at the ECCC, spitting out anti-Vietnamese sentiment in an effort to appeal to popular opinion.

Everyone knows Cambodia is profoundly mistrustful of both Vietnam and Thailand of course, but Nuon Chea’s timing was….unfortunate. Than again, I doubt that he reads the news.

Nuon Chea, however, is willing to give the Vietnamese a pass when it comes to occupying Cambodian territory in one instance. See, Ieng Sary and Pol Pot hid in Vietnam after the government began seeking out known leftists.

But according to Nuon Chea, they weren’t hiding in Vietnam at all – they were hiding on Cambodian soil that had been occupied by the Vietnamese due to “American carpet bombing.” Handy excuse.

I suppose it’s all the American’s fault, after all.

Khieu Samphan, I imagine, heartily agrees.

As does Jacques Verges, who defended Carlos the Jackal and Klaus Barbie, among other luminaries. (I suspect Verges agrees with whoever is giving him a paycheck – and is probably a bit bummed that Samphan doesn’t seem to have a hot revolutionary girlfriend for him to steal).

Why Landmines Should Not Be Banned – Nate Thayer

Nate Thayer writes out a rather interesting argument for keeping landmines in the international war chest. Not sure if I agree, but points vis a vis “regulating legal stuff is easier” and “landmines are excellent deterrents” do make sense.

Ex-Khmer Rouge Leader Admits No Guilt on Third Day of Landmark Trial – Faster Times

Khieu Samphan (Photo from ECCC website)

The third day of the opening salvo of the Khmer Rouge War Tribunal in Cambodia saw Khieu Samphan, former Khmer Rouge head of state and leader of the state presidium, tell the court with great vehemence that he was not guilty for the war-crimes—that allegedly caused the deaths of 2.2 million—that the co-prosecution had heaped him with Monday and Tuesday. A full account of yesterday’s proceedings may be read here.

Samphan’s denial of culpability appears to be following in the dubious foot-steps of his co-defendants, former “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea and former foreign foreign minister Ieng Sary, who have both passionately denied any culpability in the events of 35 years ago. Although Ieng Sary’s ill health and unwillingness to testify before the court prevented him from reading more than a paragraph of his own statement of innocence, Nuon Chea’s Tuesday rant against his supposed enemies bore considerable resemblance to Samphan’s Wednesday performance.

Read more at The Faster Times…