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.

KR Witness Denies Everything, in Shocking Development

Long Norin, today’s witness at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, suffered a lamentable amount of memory loss when it came to recalling his formerly close association with former Democratic Kampuchea Minister of Foreign Affairs Ieng Sary. Thankfully, journalist Nate Thayer has been kind enough to jog his memory.

The 73-year-old Norin, whose testimony began Wednesday afternoon, began this morning with the rather reluctant identification of a party biography Ieng Sary forced him to write, during his tenure at the Democratic Kampuchea foreign ministry.

Ieng Sary at the ECCC.

This long party bio, prepared because Sary had accused Norin of being “CIA” (along with, it seems, the entire DK Ministry of Foreign Affairs staff) – a favorite accusation of the Khmer Rouge.

These forced “biographies” often ran into the hundreds of pages. Writing such a biography was a careful exercise in admission and deception, telling just enough about one’s life and percieved mistakes to satiate the paranoia of the Khmer Rouge, while leaving out facts that might actually implicate the writer as an “enemy.”

Norin was one of the few whose biography seemed to pass muster with the top brass.

Unfortunately, just about everyone the witness mentioned in his biography, as the co-prosecution pointed out, was tortured and killed at the S-21 or “Tuol Sleng” prison – a fact Norin at least pretended to be unaware of.

Norin in his biography fingered his former schoolmate and “soccer buddy” Tach Chea as being “CIA,” referring to him as “the contemptible Tach Chea” in the text—though Norin attempted to convince the court that the Khmer “a” (translated as ‘contemptible’) was merely a term of endearment for an old friend.

I know I call my buddies “the contemptible” all the time, so I think he’s probably telling the truth.

Norin told the court “I knew Tach Chea was a CIA agent, because had contacts with embassies that have tendancies towards CIA agents” – in other words, the West.

Long Norin via video-link in court today.

How did Norin know this? Mr Chea apparantly acquired a film from a Western embassy to show the other students at the pedagogical college the two men attended.

Damning evidence indeed. Wonder what the movie was about.

Tach Chea, as the co-prosecution noted, was taken hostage by students and shot in 1974, along with the at-the-time education minister.

Tach Chea’s wife and four children were imprisoned and killed in the S-21 torture prison during or shortly after the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh – a fact Mr Norin was also unaware of, or simply didn’t care all that much about.

Norin’s biography, as read to the court, mirrored most party biographies:

“During my study, my life contacts were deeply dark. I was in contact with people who betrayed the country, or traitors. In addition, my living was not very clean. I used money to better myself. My sexual morality was not very clean. Thanks to the Angkha, I have embarked on the right way. I have built up myself with the instructions of Angkha.”

When asked why the Khmer Rouge was so concerned with sexual morality, Norin, as became typical, vacillated wildly.

ECCC Courtroom.

The co-prosecutor than asked Norin about his time working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the Khmer Rouge era—and about what happened to those staffers implicated by Sary or other top brass being “CIA or KGB.”

“Nothing noticeable happened,” Norin claimed.

A mere half hour or so later, he quickly went back on this statement, admitting that people did have a way of disappearing from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for no immediately apparant reason.

“When the staff disappeared, initially, I knew they went to study,” Mr Norin said. “But then I realized no, they were not going to study, but they were arrested instead.”

Mr Norin alleged that he was told these unfortunates had gone off to study in socialist countries – but these vanished staffers were instead shipped off to torture prisons. It was an impunity that Norin, finally, admitted to fearing:

Initially, I thought to myself that those who went to study in socialist countries might be spared, but later, even those who went to socialist countries were arrested. Those who went to France were also arrested. (Relevant as Mr Norin received a college degree…in France)

As was just about ubiqutious in Khmer Rouge Cambodia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs soon denigrated into paranoia and fear:

“After staff began to disappear, staff began to talk around those people, and they talked about them going to study. Everyone got fearful when we talked about “going to study” (after staff began to disappear.)”

The co-prosecutor than moved into a description of Norin’s relationship with Mr Sary after the 1979 fall of the Khmer Rouge. Although Norin heartily denied even speaking with Mr Sary after that date to the court, reality tells a different tale, as amply proven by Nate Thayer.

Thayer’s post shows Norin was in fact Sary’s chief spokesman after his 1997 split with the Khmer Rouge – amply documented by photographs, interviews, and English-language documents written on the stationary of the Democratic National United Movement, helmed by Mr Sary himself.

Norin, for his part, only admitted to being ‘secretary general” of the DNUM in 1994- although he denied that the party “ever had any meetings.”

Questioning regarding how, exactly, he became secretary general of a party helmed by a man he hadn’t spoken to since 1994 went un-answered.

According to Thayer, Norin also functioned as a primary voice of Sary’s DNUM radio station – a gift from current prime minister Hun Sen. This broadcast went out in 1996, read in Norin’s voice, on behalf of Sary:

“The war criminals are nobody else but Pol Pot and his handful of henchmen: Nuon Chea…who are the mass murderers of the people of Cambodia, committing until now enormous crimes against mankind. As such, they are sentenced to death.” (Everybody sentenced everybody else to death in the fallout of the Khmer Rouge leadership, it seems).

“The witness seems a bit reluctant to testify,” the co-prosecutor mused today, near the end of the morning session with Mr Norin.

Yes, he rather does, doesn’t he?

One wonders why Norin 1. bothered to testify at all, judging from the extremely close relationship he shared with Sary, as identicated by Mr Thayer’s post and 2. why he recanted many earlier statements he made to court co-investigators in 2007.

Did Sary’s still-powerful family come and rough him up? Did he decide he still had a soft squashy place in his heart for Sary after all?

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.”