Old hatreds die hard, and nowhere has this been more evident than at the trial of surviving Khmer Rouge leaders in Phnom Penh. It has been an historic week, with former ideologue Nuon Chea taking the stand while Former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and one-time head of state Khieu Samphan watched on.
Nuon Chea attempted to portray himself as a noble Khmer. As a young man, he said he had developed a “passion for justice” after witnessing the harsh handling of Cambodian peasants by the Colonial French and rich landowners who “treated them as slaves,”
His resentment of the rich and French was surpassed only by the Vietnamese, who he insisted wanted only to swallow Cambodia like a python devouring a deer.
This was an important political precursor to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge who ruled Cambodia from April 1975 to January 1979.
Nuon Chea insists that he and his fellow members of the Standing Committee, which wrote and deployed government policy, weren’t bad people, and that the extraordinary carnage committed at the time of their reign was orchestrated by Hanoi.
“I don’t want the next generations to misunderstand history…I don’t want them to misunderstand that the Khmer Rouge are bad people, are criminals, nothing is true about that…It was Vietnam who killed Cambodians,” the 85 year-old told the court in Case 002.
Between 1.7 million and 2.2 million people – a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time – died under the ultra-Maoists. About 800,000 suffered violent deaths, while the others perished amid slave labor conditions from exhaustion, starvation and associated diseases.
Few would disagree with Nuon Chea’s initial statements on the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP), which was established in 1930 by the Vietnamese seeking to forge an independent union out of Indochina and the five French colonies, Tonkin, Annam, Cochin China, Cambodia and Laos.
Nuon Chea was raised in Battambang, northwest of Phnom Penh, which was annexed by Thailand along with much of Western Cambodia after Bangkok sided and struck a deal with Japan in World War II that allowed Tokyo’s troops to march across the country, through Malaya and down to Singapore.
As such, Nuon Chea studied in Thailand where his well-entrenched views of ethnic Vietnamese were honed, and he came to view the ICP as a Trojan horse for Ho Chi Minh and his communists to establish their authority over Cambodia.
This led to the formation of the Cambodian-controlled Communist Party of Kampuchea in the 1960s, which would assume power a decade later. They emptied the cities, obliterated Khmer culture and carried out great purges with Nuon Chea as chief party ideologue.
The three currently before the court are charged with crimes against humanity, murder, torture and genocide, allegedly carried out against ethnic Vietnamese and Muslim Chams.
Nuon Chea’s stance is well-known. But importantly, his defense was finally put on the court record this week, establishing his credentials as Brother Number Two to Pol Pot, along with his loathing of all things Vietnamese, which will be telling when the bench retires to consider the evidence.
Case 002 is continuing.