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Talks beyond the courtroom: The life of Nuon Chea

Nuon Chea appears before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Prum Phalla holds a masters degree in Peace Study from Coventry University in the United Kingdom and worked for the Documentation Centre of Cambodia from 2003 to 2007. He later joined the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia from 2007 to 2019 as the senior evidence analyst for the Nuon Chea defence team. Before Mr Chea died earlier this month, he recounted his life to Mr Phalla.

Mr Chea struggled to have his story told, especially when it came to the history of him joining the revolution and the reasons why the Cambodian tragedy occurred.

Speaking of compiling his accounts, Mr Chea said: “Inheritance is a treasure and very important. Please save the writing little-by-little so we help each other. I will help by reading and correcting. It is not about correcting words, but for the thoughts and to see if I miss something. It is very difficult, nephew. There is nothing as difficult as making war and conducting a revolution. And there is nothing more difficult than winning one’s mind which is the most difficult. It is easy to win over others, but to win over oneself, this is individualism and collectivism fighting. Nowadays, individualism is winning over collectivism. So please talk to me if you have anything. I often think that if I die, all these accounts will also be buried because there is no one talk to.”

A child named Khnouch (Little Boy)

Mr Chea’s original name was Lao Kim Rorn and later was changed to Laodi and then he was known as Nuon Chea, but ‘Khnouch’ was a name that his mother loved the most. Mr Chea was the third son in his family. He was born on July 7, 1926, in Sangke district’s Wat Kor commune in Battambang province.

Mr Chea was not very good at studying, but he never failed as well. He was often scared of other people and cowardly. At school, he was scared of being hit by the teacher, and his mother often taught him to respect others.

She always warned him: “If you fight other people, I will hit you.” Such teaching made him a fearful boy.

At school, Mr Chea was afraid of others, especially outstanding students who often bullied weak students. On the other hand, he liked to make friends with children from the countryside. He hated those who lived in the city or those who had relatives in the city.

The moment that made Mr Chea think about the oppression of the poor is a sad description of circumstances. In his village, there was a neighbor who worked as a clerk at the Battambang Provincial Hall. The clerk employed villagers to ride bicycle carts for money.

One of his employees was not able to pay the rental fees, so he ordered his subordinates to arrest the employee. The employee sat on his knees begging the clerk for mercy.

Mr Chea and other children in the village saw what transpired. After a while, the clerk asked one of his subordinates to bring him a stick. The clerk hit that employee’s head hard and the employee begged for mercy. This was an event that made Mr Chea feel sympathy toward the poor.

Continuing studies in Thailand

The year was 1941 and Thailand was under the rule of Prime Minister Phibun Sangkream. Thailand controlled Cambodia because it was a small democratic country. Thailand was an invader, but it was a little bit better than France. Thus, some people were happy with the Thai rule because people had some freedom. In 1942, Mr Chea was continuing his studies in Thailand. He lived in a pagoda. His name was then changed to Rong Leut Laodi. He was very worried that he could not finish his studies, so he began school at Grade 5 in Thailand.

Mr Chea then began a preparatory class for politics at Thammasath University. He needed to be in the preparatory class for two years before starting at the university. It was during this time that World War II had started. He was the only Khmer from Battambang province in his classes in Thailand. Because he thought that a doctor could help people, he originally wanted to study to become a doctor. However, his family could not afford the courses needed for this career path, so he turned to alternatives.

Mr Chea learned that once he became a student at Thammasath, he could study and work at the same time so that he could have money to support his study and living. His revolutionary spirit was born when he attended preparatory classes at the university. Mr Chea had some friends at the university, and he started reading chamroeun news (nationalist news) and communist newspapers.

Mr Chea had started reading the nationalist newspapers and began to understand the conditions of exploitation. He was interested in a book by Praseout Sab Theu Thorn. He regretted the fact that the author later turned to liberalism (Serei Niyum). Because of the readings, Mr Chea did not have much time for his studies, particularly because he spent much of his time listening to parliamentary speeches. His political vision originates from this period.

Mr Chea remembers a composition test on the evolution of human society during his university entrance exams. He wrote about the evolution of society from ancient communism to feudalism, and how society evolved to a capitalist, socialist and communist regimes. His analysis was based on the evolution of society as a whole.

The ancient communist regime was based on the idea that everything was controlled by a tribal chief. People’s living conditions were tough and defined by a dictatorship; all food was eaten together and never kept for future meals. Later on, people could labour – labour, in this sense, became the basis for the evolution of human society. Once people could use labour in cultivation, production increased.

When production improved, people began to accumulate private property. This led to feudalism and later to capitalism, where buying and selling created rich and poor people; classes of slaves and feudalists. Capitalism created factories, which represented free society.

Once a capitalist society improved, it again reverted to socialism, where everyone was equal. In socialism, those who did less would get less food and those who did more would get more food. Those who did nothing would have nothing to eat. Socialism developed to communism, where everything was based on collectivism.

Socialism centred on the collectivism of all farmland. People worked together as a collective, and there were almost no classes. Once the exploiting class decreased, then there would be communism. Mr Chea did not know

much about communism as Democratic Kampuchea had not arrived at that stage yet. Its supporters had not yet completed its Democratic People’s Revolution. The three-year regime was referred to as the People’s Democratic Society. There is a democracy for people and bourgeois, but during the DK regime there was no bourgeois democracy–there was only people’s democracy. It was a regime in between feudalism and socialism.

Mr Chea passed the entrance exams to study law at Thammasath University, but he could not finish his first year because of his decision to join the communist movement.

Nuon Chea appears at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Beginning work

Generally speaking, his life was normal. He was not proud of himself, but he could obtain a job relatively easily while he was studying.

His first job was in irrigation. But, he found that it was not relevant to law, so he decided to quit and find another one. With this irrigation job, he mostly wrote circulars and letters, or he would search for areas that needed water.

Mr Chea spoke frankly about how he had only worked for the salary as this job was not suitable for his interests. He then applied to work for the Ministry of Finance. He had worked only for three months before he moved to another job again. He controlled all the expense lists from the provinces. He grew very tired of this job as it was all about numbers, which was not relevant to his law background. During this period, he studied in a pagoda for three months.

After three months of this study, he resumed work and came upon a job announcement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He decided to quit his Ministry of Finance position, and he applied and was selected for a position at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His last job was at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was responsible for organising documents related to foreign affairs. Particularly, Mr Chea worked with documents related to Indochinese countries. He learned a lot about nationalism from this job.

Every day, he received documents from the Cambodian embassy about the French shooting of Lao and Cambodian people along the Mekong River. He was upset over these events and began thinking about the exploitation of Cambodians by foreigners. As a young person, Mr Chea thought about the question: “Who am I serving while working here?”

He found that he was serving whoever was in power. He began thinking of two outcomes: stay as a monk or serve his interest. However, if he went to struggle to liberate his country he would serve his own people. In addition, he read the news and found out that Communism was good in 1949.

At that time, the Chinese communists came to power. All of these events and circumstances made him question his own path in life. He continued to pursue his personal interests at this time, insofar as he remained committed to working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He wanted to become a diplomat. It took a while before he reached a final decision. He left the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and contacted Thai communists. He wanted to struggle to liberate his country. After the Thai communist party contacted the Vietnamese communist party, Mr Chea was able to join the revolution. He went to Tasanh commune, Samlot district, Battambang province.

The principles of the Communist Party of Thailand at that time were to oppose any countries that invaded Thailand. The party was also against the feudalist regime. The party endeavoured to build up the country from a socialist to a communist political system. The party was also relatively big. It was established during the Japanese era, but because it did not have any base in the countryside, it did not go into the countryside. When the ruling class suppressed the party, its members were arrested completely; it was the same circumstance as in Indonesia. Mr Chea learned from this story that it was impossible to fight without the peasants.

He compared Thailand’s circumstances to Cambodia’s in order to establish the party lines on how to liberate his country. This was his purpose. He also read communist books about Marx, Leninism, and Mao Tse Tung. He was also interested in a book about the softening of the mind of the communist people by Ling Sao Seu, former Chinese president who was arrested for revisionism and later released. Mr Chea noticed a good point in the book about the argument for the elimination of individualism and the consideration for collectivism. However, Ling Sao Seu was criticised for a lack of discussion on class.

The elimination of individualism meant to eliminate private interests and avoid thinking only about oneself. “If there was me, there would be myself. If there was myself, there would be possession.” This was called myself-ism. If one only thinks about personal interests, how could one think about national interests? “Everything about me was pursuant to fulfilling my interest, my fame, and my reputation.”

Others scolded me while others admired me. This fell into liberalism. Revisionism referred to not depending on workers and peasants, but depending on the intellectual force. Marxism-Leninism obviously relied upon workers and peasants, but it did not ignore petty-bourgeois and intellectuals, who were the elites.

Mr Chea read theories in books only for the sake of enlightenment. The practice was in accordance with his country’s situation. If he followed Marxist-Leninist books without consideration, it would be called ‘Book-ism’, but if he abandoned everything, it would become liberalism. Hence, it was only a light to compare with his country’s situation, for the sake of consideration.

It was similar to Buddhist principles. Buddha just advised people to do good things. However, it totally depended on oneself to follow this advice or not. Buddha just instructed to follow this path; it was totally one’s matter to follow or not. When he was reading the books, he found out that it suited his country’s situation.

In a magazine Mr Chea read, there was a drawing of a tree watered by Vietnamese, Lao, and Khmer people to nourish its roots. There was a phrase associated with this drawing: “Only when there is solidarity among Khmer, Vietnamese, and Lao people can nations be liberated.” That was when he started to think that between him and the Vietnamese, there was no conflict as an individual. Nevertheless, when he had gone to Vietnam later, he saw the Indochina Federation and found that it was not real communism.

Authorities arrest Nuon Chea in Pailin province in 2007 to bring him to the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Struggling to liberate the country

Mr Chea left Thailand in 1950 for Cambodia and worked at the Office of Propaganda under the French protectorate. He was not a high-ranking official. He was responsible for propaganda at that office, which employed both Cambodian and Vietnamese nationals. The Vietnamese, however, were in total control. The main job was to inaugurate schools in villages and communes and to educate women’s nationalist communities. Educational materials taught five aspects of work including espionage, propaganda, education, appointment, and how to lead a struggle.

During that time, there was still communication between Vietnamese and Khmer communists and the relationship was still good. However, it was clear that the Vietnamese wanted to control the Khmers. When he had gone into the forest, he realised that joining the revolution was the right choice for him.

In 1953, the Vietnamese Central Party selected Mr Chea to study in North Vietnam. Vietnam selected him because he had a good education, and was clean and outstanding among his peers. Mr Chea said the revolution opposed France. However, it did not oppose the Sangkum Reastr Niyum (Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s party) because it was still a servant France. The revolution also did not acknowledge Cambodia’s independence in 1953. During the journey to Vietnam, he had to travel from Thailand to Laos, and then to North Vietnam, to study the global ideologies which divided the world into two parts: Communism and imperialism.

During his studies, he had read the Party Statute, which stated that, after the liberation of all the three countries from French colonisation, there would be an arrangement of the Indochina Federation. He was shocked to see that, and he thought Vietnam would be the leader. Party Secretary, Trinh Chinh, often said that Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos were like a house with three rooms under the same roof. That was the time that he started to suspect Vietnamese treachery.

In 1956, Mr Chea finished his study in Vietnam. He returned to Cambodia and was introduced to Saloth Sar for the first time. Saloth Sar explained to him about the situation in Phnom Penh. He was then assigned to be in charge of contacting people in the countryside. The Communist Party of Kampuchea was reborn in 1960, and the general congress selected Tou Samuth as the secretary and Mr Chea became the deputy secretary of the party.

After the 1970 coup to topple Prince Sihanouk’s regime, the Prince had appealed to his children and the Marquis. This was very helpful for the Khmer Rouge. The revolutionary movement instructed all comrades in the bases to secure weapons from police stations. The struggle for weaponry began violently in that year.

After the liberation in 1975, Mr Chea was still a deputy secretary of the party and also the chairman of the National Assembly of the People of the Democratic Kampuchea, until 1979. The regime allegedly killed almost two million people of the population.

Nuon Chea’s legitimisation

Mr Chea made comments about the death of people. He said that there are two different issues with these deaths. First, he spoke about the death of the innocent people, which he distinguished from the death of traitors within the party, who could be considered agents of foreign countries. Pol Pot was the one who made the final decision of such killings. He further said that Pol Pot and he did not know too much about the killing of innocent people. But he acknowledged the killings of cadres who betrayed the party.

Once he was asked if it was right to kill the traitors, he responded: “One doesn’t want to be accused of being brutal… But one has to consider whether it was reasonable given the threat they [traitors] posed to his nation. We [leaders] can’t just think of the individual. Think of how threatened our country would have been if they had stayed alive. With any philosophical issue, it is a question of proportion. We looked at the scale of the problem. We were not just talking about a few stretches of land, but our entire sovereignty. Cambodia would have been lost for centuries and we would never have won her back. If these traitors were alive, the Khmers as a people would have been finished. So one dares to suggest that his decision was the correct one. If we had shown mercy to these people, the nation would have been lost.”

The Khmers would be Vietnam’s poodles until they were totally subjugated. He also elaborated that: “We were out to change the whole of society. And one would say that we did change the whole of society. We were taking the country on the road towards socialist prosperity. We were producing food collectively. We did not allow any social class to oppress any other class or group of people. Everyone had food and clothes in equal measure. It was a clean regime, a bright regime, a peaceful regime. This was our goal, at any rate, but we failed because they destroyed us by waging their spy war from the very moment of liberation.”

Nuon Chea is laid to rest following his death. KT/Siv Channa

In terms of “smashing” it means “smash a person’s selfish nature – the part drawn to power and privilege for personal gain.

“We believed the party must be built without these elements in people. We prohibited debauchery, alcohol or obsession with material things like money. Because materialism makes one an individualist. Smashing this element did not mean killing a person, it meant smashing the bourgeois attitude which makes one think he/she is always right. One thinks only of one’s own personal interest and never of the common interest.”

Mr Chea further said: “If those individuals had been left alive, we would have lost our country and our people. We would have no Cambodia today. One needs to have feelings for both the nation and the individual. But one will always put the needs of the nation before those of the individual. An individual’s needs can be met later. But if the individual becomes a problem, then they must be solved.”

“One has no regrets [for those who were killed]. One is sorrier for his country because it is currently in a mess because the Khmer Rouge failed to beat the enemy. Those traitors were wrong in what they did.”

Nuon Chea vs the court

On the first day of the trial, Mr Chea intended to ascertain the truth of the events that had happened in Cambodian history for the sake of correct history. He said: “[From the outset], the court is unjust for me because it only took a small part for me to be tried. Only the body was mentioned and not the head and the tail of the crocodile, which are very important parts in daily activities. In other words, the root causes and the consequences which were the events that had occurred before 1975 and after 1979 are not to be discussed during this trial.”

The court decided not to try the whole case. On the contrary, because of the old age of the accused and because of resources, the court made the severance order in order to try the first and second phase of movements at the so-called case 002/01. When case 002-01 had finished, Mr Chea received life imprisonment. The court thereafter prepared another mini-trial called 002-02. On 16 November 2018 the Trial Chambers of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia issued a judgement for the Case 002/02, which gave Mr Chea another life imprisonment on all counts.

Mr Chea responded to the judgment that imposed his life sentence: “That is fine. I had prepared this for myself in advance. I don’t regret at all. I was hurt by the court, but I am not hopeless. As I told you, I did not care about my personal story. However, I care about the overall justice for people, which is important for the nation. The court will affect the nation because it is not a representation of national justice. Justice and injustice are fighting. I am struggling not for my only justice, but for the general one because justice is universal. I don’t care about my personal justice. Does this court serve justice? This court serves justice to people who are holding powers; this is very clear. There is no justice in the world. Justice is up to the power holders. Justice is of them and not the justice of people.”

“But if people hold power, justice will be for poor people. Reality is existing; it is dharma that will never die. Justice is changed in accordance with power holders. Therefore, I would still say I am a patriot and I am correct to struggle for the nation. But, it is injustice for me as they are power holders. Their power is an injustice. I don’t deny the victims. I only talk about the CPK’s guidelines which were trying to help the poor to have enough to eat, proper clothes and escape from the oppressors. I would share condolences with those victims and I would not apologise as I am not wrong.”

The contents of this story represents the views of the author and not Khmer Times.



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