When the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge first walked into court an audible and collective sigh was heard across the public gallery. Efforts to find justice for the two million people who perished under their rule had found traction in an international court.
They almost all looked healthy, Ieng Thirith, the former minister for social affairs and first lady of the ultra-Maoists wore a yellow cardigan. Her husband, former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, was in business grey.
Nuon Chea looked frightening. He wore a black and white ski cap and sunglasses, apparently for protection from the air conditioning and the bright glare of the courtroom lights. As legendary photographer Al Rockoff quipped, ‘he looks like the godfather of a Long Beach gang.’Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Nuon Chea also walked out of the court room claiming he wouldn’t get a fair trial and was allowed to retire to his cell. Khieu Samphan maintained a cheeky aloofness and was supposed to follow Nuon Chea, but surprised the packed gallery with a change of heart.
All four were on form as their defence began to outline its case.
The Extraordinary Chambers for the Courts in Cambodia (ECCC) on the outskirts of Phnom Penh are a long way from Pailin, the remote Khmer Rouge outpost. It was there that I first saw Nuon Chea and met Khieu Samphan almost 10 years ago.
With me was the South African journalist Robert Carmichael and French correspondent Deborah Pasmantier, the French photo editor Laurence de Suremain and Khmer journalist Suy Se.
Nuon Chea spotted us and darted out the back door of his hut while Khieu Samphan stood his ground and agreed to chat on the steps of his stilted home. He switched randomly between English, French and Khmer with ease and was well aware that efforts to try him were underway.
He was also a little disconcerting. Given the death and carnage that happened under the Khmer Rouge it was easy to imagine a demonstrable personality was lurking inside this man who on the surface at least had oodles of charm and smiled like a favourite uncle.
Throughout the interview, Khieu Samphan would consistently fall back on one argument when asked about the Killing Fields. ‘Foreign influences’ was a regular remark, communist cliché and excuse for anything that went wrong when Pol Pot and his followers ran amok across Cambodia.
The Americans did this, the Vietnamese did that. Cambodia was a pawn unfortunately caught in a Cold War power play, constantly being squeezed then torn between the likes of China and the Soviet Union. There were a lot of people who did a lot of killing.
His argument was that all the systematic killings and the deaths of a third of his country’s population – also through disease, famine and the slave labour that allegedly resulted from his government’s policies – were somehow a by-product of the shocking misdeeds of others.
Such arguments are asinine, insulting to the dead and unlikely to win any favour at the ECCC. The tribunal’s mandate covers crimes only committed in Cambodia and only between April 1975 and January 1979 when Cambodia was shut down by the likes of Khieu Samphan and totally isolated from the rest of the world.
During that period, the only foreign flag that curried any influence with the Khmer Rouge was China and how much Beijing knew about what was really going on behind the scenes in Democratic Kampuchea has been an intriguing source of material for journalists, analysts and academics ever since.
Back then, Khieu Samphan’s arguments had a hollow ring, and they still do today.
There were lots of stories out of the ECCC this week as the trial got off to an historic start. But given his past it was Khieu Samphan’s decision not to follow Nuon Chea and walk out on the trial that was for me, the choice moment of the opening days.
He also said he had decided to support the tribunal and that he wanted all Cambodians to understand what went on back then. If he is true to his word, then the tribunal is off to a flying start.