Frontline World

Cambodia - Pol Pot's Shadow, October, 2002

Synopsis of "Pol Pot's Shadow"

In Search of Justice

Historical Analysis: The U.S. and Cambodia

The Rapper, the Dancer, and the Storyteller

Learn more about Cambodia

Genocide, War Crimes, Politics




Diary Entry 10
PAILIN - Brother Number Two

Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two


Land Mines and Sapphires
The Gem Market
Brother Number Two

We're inching along in the dark outside of Pailin, driving through the jungle before dawn, on our way to the home of the most senior living Khmer Rouge leader. Our camera is wrapped in blankets and hidden below the seat. It seems highly unlikely any of this is going to work.

We have secured an interview with Nuon Chea, believed to have been head of the Security Committee during the Khmer Rouge regime. Nuon Chea is a shadowy figure even in an organization famed for its secrecy and paranoia. Back in Malai, Suong had described Nuon Chea to us as "Pol Pot's shadow." He was mostly known simply as Brother Number Two.

To get by neighbors and the local security, we have to disguise that we are Western journalists. I wear a long-sleeved shirt and pants and tuck my blondish hair under a low-brimmed hat. Our translator dresses Adam in a long blouse and pointy wooden hat, like some extra in a Khmer B-movie. He tries to reassure us as we frown skeptically. "Very Khmer," he nods.

Back in America I had spoken with Nate Thayer, one of the most prominent journalists reporting on Cambodia. Thayer was the only reporter to interview pol pot in two decades. He was also the only one to talk to all of the top Khmer Rouge leaders. "Nuon Chea, in my view, is more guilty of crime against humanity -- war crimes, torture and mass murder -- than any other single Cambodian," he explains. "We have far more documentary evidence against Nuon Chea than we do against Pol Pot."

Nuon Chea lies as his blood pressure is taken
As head of the security apparatus, Thayer told me, Nuon Chea was in charge of arresting so-called enemies of the party. Documents have recently been collected that indicate Nuon Chea was intimately involved in the executions at Tuol Sleng.

As Thayer explained, "For every single person who came through Tuol Sleng, Nuon Chea was given a copy of the briefing of the torture and remarked on when it was appropriate to have them killed. We have overwhelming evidence he was involved at least in those 14,000 murders personally, that he personally ordered them."

Nuon Chea now lives next door to another high-ranking Khmer Rouge leader, Khieu Samphan, the longtime public image of the regime. As we pull into the compound where Nuon Chea lives, the first of three security checkpoints is deserted on cue. It's unclear whether the security is there to keep other people out or Nuon Chea in.

As we near the clearing, I glance out the car window and suddenly find myself staring into one of the most recognizable faces of the Khmer Rouge. It's Khieu Samphan, glaring down from his balcony just a few feet above me, ducking to get a better look, trying to figure out who we are and what we're doing near his doorstep before dawn.

I figure the interview's finished. We pull up to Nuon Chea's house and wait. It's a simple wooden home, traditional Cambodian style, on stilts. Whatever Nuon Chea's been doing lately it doesn't appear that he's cashed in on the gem trade. No alarm sounded, so we tentatively grab our swathed equipment, slip off our shoes and walk up the wooden planks into the house.

Brother Number Two greets us warmly. I'm reeling with the strangeness of being politely introduced as if at a cocktail party, shaking hands with the man believed to be responsible for the Khmer Rouge killing machine. When Adam pulls out the black metal tripod from our camera bag, Nuon Chea loses his composure for a moment, suddenly staggering back and looking alarmed. He has more reason than most to fear an assassination attempt. After a moment he realizes what the sleek metal object is and laughs.

Brother Number Two and his wife live in a modest two-room home. The main sitting room consists of a wooden table and a few chairs. The only decoration is a glassed-in puzzle of two animals fighting and a picture of the Buddha above it. He explains that the bottom picture symbolizes the struggles of the world and the picture of the Buddha represents the only way to solve these problems. It's an odd sentiment for a man who was once a central figure in a regime that banned religion and forcibly defrocked Buddhist monks and nuns.

Nuon Chea's wife sits by the bed
In the bedroom, amid the carefully stacked books, is an old black and white photo of Nuon Chea as a toddler, sitting on a tricycle. Behind him is his grandfather and the elementary school class his grandfather taught. It is another jarring portrait: not only seeing the executioner as a boy, but also remembering that the Khmer Rouge ruthlessly targeted teachers for death.

At 6:30 in the morning it's already stifling. Nuon Chea sits calmly and cools himself with a bamboo fan.

It's a small gesture, but strikingly evocative. I had seen archival footage of the Khmer Rouge's April 1975 takeover of Phnom Penh. When the Khmer Rouge swept into power, they immediately emptied the cities and forced everyone into the countryside. After the evacuation of Phnom Penh, the leaders of the central committee roamed the empty city they had just conquered, walking through the silent streets with the arrogance of victors and the delight of children whose fantasy had just been fulfilled. One figure lagged behind the rest. Nuon Chea strode slowly and confidently, surveying his new domain, lazily waving a fan in front of him.

As we talk, Nuon Chea seems more interested in making his American television debut than in answering our questions. Filtering everything through a translator makes getting straight answers even more trying. He puts on a show. He shares his admiration for George Washington. He jokes that he only became a communist because the Americans wouldn't have him. The closest he comes to admitting any responsibility is when he says, "A person's not always wrong and not always right. Like the leaders -- we did some wrong, but we also did some right. Just because you're wrong doesn't mean you're a bad person. If you do anything, you're going to make mistakes."

Nuon Chea can only talk for a few minutes at a time without struggling for breath. He goes to lie down and have his wife take his blood pressure. If the courts are to get any real answers from this man, it seems that the time must come soon.


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