Wednesday 18 September 2019

Obituary: Nuon Chea

Comrade of Pol Pot, seen as one of the architects of the brutal regime in Cambodia

Nuon Chea had a key role in Khmer Rouge. Photo: Reuters
Nuon Chea had a key role in Khmer Rouge. Photo: Reuters

Nuon Chea, who died aged 93 last Sunday, was deputy secretary general of the Communist Party of Democratic Kampuchea, as the Khmer Rouge called themselves. Known as "Brother Number Two", he was the closest comrade of Pol Pot, one of the 20th century's most bloody dictators, for more than 30 years.

After Pol Pot's forces seized control of Cambodia in April 1975 they declared "Year Zero", abolishing religion, schools and currency, and set about turning the country into a peasant society: towns and cities were emptied as more than two million people were driven from the capital, Phnom Penh, in a matter of days.

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Those too old or sick to move were executed, as were the country's intellectuals and the soldiers and officials of the former republican government. In new collectives children were separated from parents, husbands from wives. Everyone belonged to a new family - the party - and those judged not to belong were killed.

From 1975 to 1979 when the Vietnamese invaded, putting an end to the revolution, the group's fanatical efforts to usher in utopia led to the deaths of 1.7m people from starvation, disease, overwork and executions.

A sinister, shadowy figure, Nuon Chea had played a pivotal role as Pol Pot came to dominate the underground communist movement in the 1950s and 1960s. After the Khmer Rouge took power he was seen as one of the key architects of its ideology and also ran the state security apparatus.

After being ousted from power in 1979, the group, from bases in the jungles of western Cambodia, waged guerrilla warfare for another two decades before disintegrating. Pol Pot died in 1998, and on Christmas Eve that year Nuon Chea and his comrade Khieu Samphan, the former Khmer Rouge head of state, surrendered.

In spite of international calls for them to be put on trial, however, two of the leading architects of the "killing fields" were welcomed back to Phnom Penh with a promise of amnesty by the Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen, who met the duo at his home and gave them and family members a beach holiday and security escorts.

They had, he claimed, "defected" from the Khmer Rouge and should be welcomed not with handcuffs but with "a bouquet of flowers". Previously, Hun Sen had supported demands for an international court to try Khmer Rouge war criminals. But he himself had been a battalion commander in the organisation and many senior and middle-ranking figures in national and regional government were former members of the group.

When asked at the time who was to blame for the massacres under his regime, Nuon Chea told a news conference: "Let's consider that an old issue." Deaths had occurred, he admitted, but only "because we wanted to win the war". In a bizarre half-apology he insisted: "We are sorry not only for the lives of the people, but also for the animals."

When the journalist Phil Rees paid a visit to Nuon Chea in 2002 for a BBC Two documentary he found Brother Number Two enjoying a quiet retirement in the countryside with his wife and grandchildren, next door to Khieu Samphan. He claimed ignorance of the scale of the carnage under the Khmer Rouge and showed no guilt or remorse: "I have never stayed awake at night or shed any tears."

In later interviews Nuon Chea insisted that he had been mainly in charge of legislative matters and often did not know what policies were being implemented by Pol Pot. "I was not involved in the killing of people," he told AFP in 2007. "I don't know who was responsible."

But, like the Nazis in Germany, the Khmer Rouge kept meticulous archives which charted, among other things, activities in the infamous Tuol Sleng - or S-21 - prison, a torture centre in Phnom Penh run by Nuon Chea's infamous subordinate Kaing Guek Eav, known as Comrade Duch, where some 16,000 men, women and children were tortured and executed.

As Vietnamese troops advanced on the city in 1979 Nuon Chea wrote to Duch, ordering him to kill the final prisoners and flee. Duch complied, but there was no time to destroy the archives, a lapse that would cost Nuon Chea dear when, after much pressure, in November 2007 the Cambodians finally arrested him and Khieu Samphan on charges of crimes against humanity.

Prosecutors found copious records of the day-to-day goings-on at Tuol Sleng - including descriptions of torture and photographs of victims before and after they were, as the Khmer Rouge put it, "smashed to pieces". The files revealed that confessions extracted under torture were sent to "Brother Nuon" before the prisoners were executed, and prosecutors were able to present evidence that he had personally ordered torture and executions on a massive scale.

When he appeared before a special UN-backed tribunal for the first time in June 2011, Nuon Chea, an old and withered man adorned in what looked like an oversized tea-cosy and sunglasses, seemed an unlikely mass-murderer. But it soon became clear that age and captivity had not softened his resolve. He remained defiant throughout his trial, refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the court and blaming any deaths that took place on the Vietnamese.

In 2014, he was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life imprisonment. After a second trial, in November last year he was found guilty of genocide against minority Cham Muslims and ethnic Vietnamese and given a second life sentence.

In 1957, in a marriage arranged by the party, Nuon Chea married Ly Kim Seng, who survives him with three daughters and a son.

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