Cambodia: the trial of Brother Number Two

You have to wonder whether Nuon Chea believes his own defence. But the man they called Brother Number Two in 1970s Cambodia now insists that it was the Vietnamese and unspecified ‘rogue elements’ that did the killing in the country’s now world famous killing fields.

I don’t want the next generations to misunderstand the history,’ he has told a United Nations-backed court in Phnom Penh, where he is on trial for genocide. ‘I don’t want them to misunderstand that the Khmer Rouge are bad people, are criminals. Nothing is true about that.”

Unfortunately for Nuon Chea, the verdict of history is already largely in. Estimates of the death toll during the four years in which the Communist Party of Kampuchea were in charge of Cambodia vary hugely. Yet when even apologists open the batting by talking down the body count down to a mere 740,000, you get some idea of the enormity of what occurred.

The usually cited figure is around 2,000,000, roughly equating to 20% of the population. Much of the slaughter was ethnically or religiously motivated. Among the victims were many people considered to be intellectuals, a definition that could include being a schoolteacher, or even wearing reading glasses.

Where debate does legitimately still rage is the extent to which the actions of the US created the preconditions for the tragedy. Nixon’s barbarous decision to bomb Cambodia as part of the Vietnam war effort claimed 500,000 lives between 1969 and 1973, and clearly qualifies as a war crime in its own right.

Don’t forget either that after the ouster of Pol Pot following Vietnamese intervention in 1978, the US and the UK continued to back the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government. As late as the late 1980s, Britain provided military training in Thailand for Khmer Rouge operatives.

Yet none of this exculpates the perpetrators of mass murder. I am afraid that the Khmer Rouge were indeed ‘bad people’, and as prime minister and second in command during the period, Nuon Chea remains one of the handful of leading regime representatives still alive.

Now aged 85, he seems to be in either genuine or feigned denial of what it did. But it is entirely right that he finds himself in the dock.