Ex-Khmer Rouge leader admits 'mistakes' but denies genocide

Monday, January 19, 2004

PAILIN, Cambodia -- The top surviving leader of the Khmer Rouge admitted he made "mistakes" during the feared regime's rule but denied being guilty of genocide and rejected the idea that millions of people died.

Nuon Chea, second in command under Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, told The Associated Press in an interview he would gladly appear before a U.N.-backed war crimes tribunal pursuing top Khmer Rouge leaders. His comments appeared to be the latest in regime leaders' efforts to get their versions on the record before being called to trial.

"I admit that there was a mistake. But I had my ideology. I wanted to free my country. I wanted people to have well-being," Nuon Chea, 77, told the AP from his modest bungalow in Pailin, the movement's former stronghold.

"I didn't use wisdom to find the truth of what was going on, to check who was doing wrong and who was doing right. I accept that error," he said in the interview Saturday.

The Khmer Rouge, which ruled from 1975-79, is implicated in the deaths of at least 1.7 million Cambodians, nearly a quarter of the population, according to the Documentation Center of the Cambodia Genocide Program, administered by Yale University. They died from disease, overwork, starvation and execution.

Researchers and historians believe Nuon Chea was responsible for Khmer Rouge policies that led to the atrocities. He told the AP the fallen regime had caused only part of the suffering and said, "I wasn't a war criminal."

Nuon Chea didn't go nearly as far as his comrade, Khieu Samphan, who admitted to the AP in December that genocide took place but denied ordering killings or knowing the extent of the regime's brutality. The comments by Khieu Samphan, the nominal leader of the Khmer Rouge and its best known public face, were the first such admission by a senior regime leader.

During its rule, when Nuon Chea served as the movement's ideologue and Pol Pot's close comrade, the Khmer Rouge emptied cities, abolished money, and closed schools and hospitals in an attempt to create an agrarian utopia.

During the interview, Nuon Chea wore sunglasses with a "Gucci" label, a black T-shirt and shorts with a blue-and-white scarf around his waist. His modestly furnished bungalow sits on the outskirts of Pailin, a gem mining town where many ex-Khmer Rouge live.

Nuon Chea said the number of people who died was not in the millions. He acknowledged that many did die but said it was impossible to say how.

"People died but there were so many causes of their deaths. We have to know the situation, what the situation was like."

Nuon Chea said he is willing to face a court to set the record straight. The Cambodian government and United Nations agreed last June to establish a tribunal to try former Khmer Rouge leaders like Nuon Chea, and he may be compelled to face charges.

No senior Khmer Rouge member has ever been convicted for the regime's atrocities. Only two top officials -- Ta Mok and Kaing Khek Iev -- are in jail after being seized by the government in the waning days of the Khmer Rouge guerrilla war, but have not been convicted. Pol Pot died in 1998, an ill and hunted man, while other leaders like Nuon Chea were granted government amnesty.

Pol Pot and Nuon Chea became brothers-in-revolution in the 1950s. Known as Brother No. 2, Nuon Chea spent most of his life shrouded in self-imposed secrecy and keeps a low profile.

"We have to take this chance to benefit our country and our people," Nuon Chea said. "We will have to explain to people around the world and my people so they can understand who created the conflict back then, who was the enemy."

"The only thing I want to beg is for the court not to be biased. But please judge according to the rule of law and religion," said Nuon Chea, who describes himself as a practicing Buddhist.

Nuon Chea, born of a wealthy Chinese-Cambodian family and educated in Thailand, said that the overthrow of King Norodom Sihanouk by the U.S.-backed Lon Nol led to the Khmer Rouge storming into Phnom Penh in 1975. The Khmer Rouge drove 2 million people from the city at gunpoint and forced them to work in the countryside.

Nuon Chea said foreigners were Cambodia's enemies during the regime's rule but would not say who. The Khmer Rouge long accused both the United States and the former Soviet Union of trying to subvert their regime.

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