The recent death of Nuon Chea is a boost to the prospect for peace and reconciliation in this country. The infamous Khmer Rouge ideologue was declared dead from complex illness and diseases at the age of ninety-three at his Phnom Penh hospital on August 4, 2019.
Being second in rank after Pol Pot, the former Prime Minister of Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979), Nuon Chea was among the senior KR leaders brought to justice at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) for charges on war crimes, crimes against humanity, crime of genocide and other offenses. His dictatorial rule was recognized as accountable for the death of nearly 2 million Cambodian people from April 17, 1975 to January 6, 1979.
Nuon Chea died before all charges against him were adjudicated. Along with one of my colleagues from the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam), I was in Anlong Veng, the final stronghold of the Khmer Rouge movement, on the day of his death.
Returning to Phnom Penh, a friend asked me whether I observed if former KR cadres residing in Anlong Veng learned about Nuon Chea’s death and if they were now considering a move to Pailin, another KR stronghold in the southwest. Since that moment, I’ve paid close attention to this matter.
As has been reported from Pailin, Nuon Chea was cremated in the presence of noticeably fewer mourners among former KR commanders and soldiers as compared to the funeral of the former DK Foreign Affairs Minister, Ieng Sary, in March 2013.
It is understood that the reduced presence at Nuon Chea’s funeral procession reflected his high profile case and verdicts at the ECCC. Clearly, his old colleagues wished to distance themselves from a former leader so publically accused and discredited.
It is a testament to the effectiveness of the ECCC process that it has verified fundamental truths about the record of KR atrocities. Through the legal process, even the old KR rank and file has come to acknowledge the direct role of Nuon Chea and other senior leadership in the systematic purges against internal and external enemies which resulted in mass genocide.
The situation at Nuon Chea’s death underscores how deeply the KR legacy has been tarnished since the days of his regime. Forty-years ago, and even twenty, followers took great pride being seen publically as closely affiliated with him.
It is only after the long journey of trials which painstakingly drew the truth of his responsibilities that Nuon Chea was transformed into a powerless figure of guilt whom former KR now hold in obvious disregard and even contempt.
It is unusual anywhere in the world for the passing of a former official leader to elicit joy or renewed optimism. Normally, even for controversial national statesmen, it is a time of sober reflection and remembrance.
This occasion is different. Nuon Chea was statesman, the President of the People’s Representative Assembly in the DK period. Yet there is absolutely no justification to contemplate anything positive in his legacy.
Nationalism has its benefits, among them a respect for past leadership. But we must be careful with it. It encourages deference to a new political leader, a mentality among the people working for his or her administration that they should maintain steadfast support through thick and thin.
It would seem a negative commentary on this administration if, when the leader loses power, it scatters in pursuit of its own benefit and disclaim association with the former boss.
Yet, this time is different. I see in Nuon Chea’s death a fresh and promising sign that national efforts toward peace have finally won a broader appeal. His demise confirmed the rejection of long-held ideology weighing on the country.
Gone is the chance during his lifetime, envisioned by his hardcore followers, that some fortuitous surprise could revive their movement. After all, Nuon Chea was a manipulator. He could twist different versions of stories to stir public emotions and twist opinions through researchers, reporters, and other avenues.
Nuon Chea’s death should bring the survivors of the KR genocide a sense of relief and satisfaction that any chance of the KR’s return to power is absolutely impossible. The fewer mourners are, in one way or another, an indication of peace gaining the upper hand over prospects for re-igniting conflict.
Ly Sok-Kheang, PhD is the Director of Anlong Veng Peace Center, DOCUMENTATION CENTER OF CAMBODIA (DC-CAM)