The second-in-command of Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime told a war crimes tribunal today that he was a patriot who fought to free his country from colonialism and foreign invasion, giving insight to his role in the death of 1.7 million people in the 1970s.
In Nuon Chea's first public comments since his trial opened at the UN-backed court on Monday, the regime’s chief ideologue pinned most of the country’s problems on neighboring Vietnam.
“I had to leave my family behind to liberate my motherland from colonialism and aggression and oppression by the thieves who wish to steal our land and wipe Cambodia off the face of the earth,” Nuon Chea told the court.
“We wanted to free Cambodia from being a servant of other countries and we wanted to build Cambodia as a society that is clean and independent without any killing of people or genocide.”
The frail octogenarian, who is accused of involvement in the deaths of at least 1.7 million people during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 rule, addressed his hour-long speech to “my beloved Cambodian people.”
Nuon Chea is being tried alongside Khieu Samphan, the former Khmer Rouge head of state, and ex-foreign minister Ieng Sary. The three octogenarians face a raft of charges, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. A fourth defendant, Ieng Thirith, the former minister of social affairs, has been ruled unfit to stand trial.
Nuon Chea’s address came after prosecutors gave a grisly and vividly detailed summary of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, describing it as “a massive slave camp.” In his opening statements today, international co-prosecutor Andrew Cayley told the court not be tempted by feelings of sympathy for the old men who had “murdered, tortured, and terrorized” their own people.
After toppling a US-based regime on April 17, 1975, the Khmer Rouge – led by “Brother No 1” Pol Pot – forcibly evacuated the capital Phnom Penh and put Cambodians to work in vast rural labor communes.
Hundreds of thousands died from overwork, starvation, and summary execution as the regime embarked on a series of brutal internal purges. The Khmer Rouge were eventually toppled by a Vietnamese invasion in early 1979.
During his remarks, Chea repeatedly accused Vietnam of plotting to “swallow” Cambodia. He also turned his blame on the protracted US bombing of eastern Cambodia in the early 1970s, saying Washington tried to “suppress the movement of struggle of the Indochinese people.”
Anne Heindel, a legal adviser at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which researches Khmer Rouge atrocities, says Nuon Chea’s comments offered a fascinating insight into the mind of the aged ideologue. “In his view he was defending the nation from the Vietnamese… This is the way he sees the world.”
Though there was a glaring lack of reference to the human suffering brought on by his regime’s policies, Ms. Heindel says it was vital the frail leader broke his silence and addressed survivors in person. “It’s a tremendously important part of the process,” she says.
The trial continues tomorrow with opening statements from defence lawyers. The first section of the trial, focusing on the establishment of the Khmer Rouge regime and the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, begins next month.