Nuon Chea often said he was ready to face up to his past. As the Khmer Rouge leader dubbed Brother No. 2 (behind Cambodia's tyrannical Pol Pot), he said that he did not fear the prospect of being imprisoned for war crimes. "They can keep my body in jail," Nuong Chea once proclaimed, "but my conscience will have served my nation and my people."
Now the country's most senior surviving Khmer Rouge leader is having that bravado put to the test. On Wednesday, Cambodian police finally surrounded Nuon Chea's home and arrested the 82-year-old on charges of crimes against humanity. He has denied the charges and his trial for his role in the communist regime that left an estimated 1.7 million dead between 1975 and 1979 could begin next year.
The arrest is a landmark event in Cambodia's troubled history. Many genocide researchers say he actually played a greater role than Pol Pot in the regime's executions—but until now Brother No. 2 was living proof of the Southeast Asian country's failure to confront its brutal past. His detention seems to indicate that Cambodia's U.N.-backed trial of senior Khmer Rouge leaders may finally take place.
"[Cambodian officials] have to show forward movement—the [trial] is bogging out," says Peter Maguire, professor of history at Bard College and author of the 2005 book "Facing Death in Cambodia" (Columbia University Press). "It's taken them more time to get a court up and running than it took to try every single Japanese and German war criminal after World War II."
Nuon Chea was arrested at home in a forest clearing near the town of Pailin, more than 200 miles from the capital of Phnom Penh and just feet away from the Thai border. Three years ago, I interviewed him at that house after showing up at his front steps with his doctor, my translator and a box of mangosteen fruit. Then 78 and frail in a tattered shirt and loose red trousers, he welcomed us into his wooden, stilted house. He was still highly regarded by former Khmer Rouge supporters in that area and showed few regrets about his past. In our hourlong interview he characterized himself as a patriot, told us he was disappointed people died under the Khmer Rouge, but said that his crime was carelessness, not genocide.
Born to a wealthy Chinese-Cambodian family, Nuon Chea dropped out of law school in Thailand some 50 years ago to join the communist guerrilla movement. As deputy secretary-general of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, he oversaw all of the party's organizations and helped direct the national-security police. The Khmer Rouge evacuated cities, abolished money and markets and forced everyone into slave labor. Cambodians were forced to work in fields for up to 18 hours per day on starvation rations. Cadres murdered those caught scavenging food; others died of malnutrition and disease. Nuon Chea, however, was careful to tailor his comments about those days. He sat with us at his kitchen table, quoting from Einstein and French literature and speaking knowledgeably about current world politics. But he smiled and tried to change the subject when asked about his specific role in the Khmer Rouge.
Glossing over the atrocities of the era, he said that mass starvation was caused by subordinates who "overimplemented guidelines." For example, he said, his underlings cut people's rice rations from 12 kilograms per month to one kilogram without his knowledge.
What about the vast number of people tortured and executed? In documents issued to those in charge of the notorious S-21 prison, a commander referred to as "Uncle Nuon" ordered his forces to "smash" and "cleanly sweep away" party members thought to be CIA, KGB or Vietnamese agents. The result was that suspects were beaten, whipped or stuffed in tanks of water to coerce confessions, then taken with their families to killing fields where they were bludgeoned or shot to death. Some were executed for sabotaging the regime because they had simply acknowledged a mundane truth like a drop in rice production. "That is my regret. It was from our carelessness, but it was not our intention," said Nuon Chea of the deaths. "It happened in part from interference from foreign countries, and some among the regime's leaders were bad people, too."
Who were those bad people? Which foreign countries? Nuon Chea wouldn't say—partly, he said because pointing fingers could damage relations with those who now give aid to his still impoverished nation. "I want to clarify that in the Khmer Rouge regime there were some mistakes," he says. "But what level those mistakes were, people do not know yet. I don't know how many people died during the regime."
Back in Phnom Penh after that 2004 interview, Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which gathers evidence on atrocities committed during the Khmer Rouge era, rejected Nuon Chea's professions of ignorance. "We have so far identified over 19,000 mass graves around the country," said Chhang, whose sister's belly was sliced open by the regime's cadres when she was suspected of stealing rice. "He can visit some of those graves and he can ask every single Cambodian family how many of their family members have died during the Khmer Rouge regime."
After Vietnamese troops ousted the regime in 1979, Nuon Chea withdrew with Khmer Rouge forces to the area along the Thai border. There the cadres financed a guerrilla war with rubies, sapphires and timber torn from the surrounding hills and sold to Thai generals. The United States and China also bolstered them with weapons to fight Vietnam.
Nuon Chea subsequently surrendered in an amnesty deal along with former head of state Khieu Samphan in 1998, the same year Pol Pot died after a show trial, and the movement finally collapsed. Now trial officials have recommended that five senior party figures be charged. Most Cambodians hope the appearance of these former leaders in court will tell them how the Khmer Rouge came to murder its own people. They also hope the court will start a trend of reining in the powerful.
But justice—and punishment—will not come easily. Nuon Chea is ailing and suffering from heart disease; he may not live to see a verdict. And only one other person has been charged so far: Kaing Guek Eav—commonly known as Duch—who ran the S-21 prison in Phnom Penh. Many analysts believe that the pace of prosecution has been deliberately slowed by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen in a bid to control the trials—probably to prevent testimony that would prove embarrassing to members who used to be in the Khmer Rouge. After nearly a decade of unenthusiastic negotiations between the government and the United Nations, the trial format will mix international staff with Cambodia's inept, corrupt judiciary. Whatever the outcome of the war-crime prosecutions, that dubious legal system is unlikely to be overhauled anytime soon.