The first three days of Case 002 of the Khmer Rouge trial have seen both a total lack of penance, and a dogged determination to deflect blame for the death of millions of Cambodians from defendants “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, former foreign minister Ieng Sary, and former Head of State Khieu Samran.
Instead of looking to themselves and their own choices, the three former Khmer Rouge leaders have thus far preferred blame US carpet bombings, Vietnamese incursions into Cambodia, poor conditions created by French imperialists and previous Cambodian governments, and other outside forces for the miserable conditions their people suffered.
Every student of Khmer Rouge history knows the regime’s defining feature was rampant, bizarre paranoia, which spread from Pol Pot all the way down to village cadres. Anything that went wrong in Democratic Kampuchea, as the Khmer Rouge called its nascent nation, was attributed to malignant outside forces, including the US CIA, the KGB, the Vietnamese, or the “new” people (city dwellers, the educated, the wealthy, and anyone else the Khmer Rouge brass didn’t care for).
Although the Khmer Rouge were ousted in 1979, it would seem from the defendent’s courtroom arguments that they have hung onto that xenophobic paranoia.
Former “brother number two” Nuon Chea has been caught on tape in recent years claiming the KR only killed “the bad people; these traitors who did not follow our policies.” But the definition of “enemy or traitor” was a distressingly loose one, in a nation where stealing food for one’s child, being a Muslim, or living too close to the Vietnamese border were grounds for punishment and death.
On the second day of Case 002, Chea launched into a two-hour-long monologue blaming everyone but himself for the Khmer Rouge tragedy, citing Vietnam’s supposed hunger for more land, US air strikes, and the constant onslaught of “spies and enemies” on the Khmer Rouge for the millions of deaths that occurred during his time in power.
For all intents and purposes, Chea was parroting the policies of 1975 Khmer Rouge ideology, but he was doing so in 2011, and in the dock of the Khmer Rouge War Tribunal courtroom.
Then there is Ieng Sary, former Democratic Kampuchea foreign minister. According to prosecutor Andrew Cayley, Sary denied the existence of killings or deaths in the regime he represented, preferring to chalk up any rumors of bad Cambodian conditions to “the propaganda machine of imperialists.”
Khieu Samphan and his defense team were right behind Chea and Sary, heavily relying on the argument that US carpet bombing led to the anarchy that allowed the Khmer Rouge to come into power and make the decisions that it did.
Samphan’s famous lawyer, Jacques Verges (defender of such luminaries as Carlos the Jackal and Klaus Barbie), directed the attention of the court to Agent Orange deformities along the Ho Chi Minh trail and the thousands upon thousands of child victims of US bombings.
This argument handily ignores the reality that Laos and Vietnam, victims of the same bombing and the same war, managed to avoid a genocidal regime like Cambodia’s.
Khieu Samphan claimed in court Wednesday that the events of the Khmer Rouge era happened a long time ago, long enough ago that it is foolish to try him. He told the court that “in 36 years, a man grows and changes.”
But Samphan has not “grown and changed” enough to prevent him and his two co-defendants from falling back on the same old paranoid arguments, and the same old displacement of blame that turned a nation into a “prison without walls” under their watch.
This paranoia is alive and well today in these three old men, and the best proof I can think of that they have not changed at all in the 36 years since the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh. Perhaps people, even truly evil people, can change — but it is evident from their arguments that Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan are not among their ranks.