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.”
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.”
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.