Reclusive but free, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge leaders wait for trial

Ly Kim Seng stabs her hoe into the weeds threatening her watermelons on land abutting Cambodia’s border with Thailand. She pauses to explain that her husband Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s deputy during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, is too ill to accept visitors.

A child’s bicycle lies along the path leading to the mango-tree shaded house, fuchsia flowers dot a patch of grass nearby and lovingly tended potplants add an incongruous touch to the home of an accused mass-murderer.

One of those slated to be hauled before a UN-backed international tribunal to face charges of crimes against humanity and genocide, Nuon Chea, 78, spends his days pottering around his wooden house — when he is well enough.

"He suffered diarrhoea last night and is sleeping now… And my husband is partly paralysed from a stroke," Ly Kim Seng apologises, wearing tattered socks on her hands to prevent blisters as she toils under the tropical sun.

"I cannot go far away from him, I need to stay close by. If I want to go somewhere, I have to call one of my children to stay with him."

Shadowy Nuon Chea was commonly known as "Brother Number Two" — Pol Pot’s right-hand man — throughout the regime which oversaw the deaths of up to two million Cambodians during its rule beginning 30 years ago this coming Sunday.

He served as deputy secretary general of the ruling Communist Party of Kampuchea, was responsible for all of the party’s organisations and helped oversee the national security police. He also occasionally acted as prime minister during the Democratic Kampuchea government.

When it was ousted by Vietnamese forces in early 1979, Nuon Chea continued to fight against the government installed in Phnom Penh and eventually withdrew with Khmer Rouge forces to western Pailin.

From this remote border zone 375 kilometres (233 miles) from the capital, their guerrilla war was funded by rubies and sapphires ripped from the hills and plundered timber sold to rich Thai businessmen, and was bolstered by assistance from China.

Nuon Chea surrendered under an amnesty deal along with former head of state Khieu Samphan in 1998, the same year Pol Pot died after a show trial in another remote border town, and the movement finally collapsed.

Only two of those among the half-dozen or so former leaders expected to face justice through the 56-million-dollar tribunal, for which most of the funding has already been raised, are in jail.

Ly Kim Seng, who married Nuon Chea 48 years ago, fumes about the prospect of her husband being prosecuted.

"I’m very disappointed with this tribunal. Why have they organised this tribunal to sentence people like my husband, who is a real nationalist?

"Why don’t they try the leaders who really betrayed the nation, the leaders who occupied here?" she asks.

"My husband was never a soldier or a military commander. He was only in charge of education and gave his advice and ideas. He was never in control of the military."

But Nuon Chea will attend the trial in Phnom Penh, if necessary.

"I am not afraid and the same goes for my husband, who has said many times that he’s ready to go to court. Even if he can’t walk, he’s ready to go."

Ly Kim Seng is also bitter about her family’s meagre finances compared to other ex-leaders such as Ieng Sary, the Khmer Rouge’s foreign minister, who now lives in a villa in Phnom Penh and has a second home in Pailin.

Their house is owned by Ieng Sary’s son-in-law, while a plot given to Nuon Chea next door by Pailin’s governor, another ex-Khmer Rouge fighter, lies unused. Out the front is a shuttered house Khieu Samphan lived in before moving in to the outskirts of Pailin town.

"Ieng Sary, now he’s a rich man. He doesn’t want to meet poor people like us… He took a lot of money from the country and people," she accuses.

"My life and my husband’s life relies on support from our children."

It’s a peaceful existence for Nuon Chea, who makes a brief appearance at the window of the house wearing sunglasses and a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, calling for his wife.

"He always stays inside the house. Of an evening, when it’s cool, if his health is better he walks outside near the house," Ly Kim Seng later says.

In what may be small comfort for survivors of the regime he once led, Nuon Chea no longer sleeps well, according to his wife.

"He can sleep only in the early evening. He wakes up every night at around 1:00 or 2:00am."

Meanwhile, Khieu Samphan also lives quietly in his modest pale-blue concrete home, but is often seen around town, attending weddings and dinners.

His wife opens the door promptly to a knock and the French-speaking former head of state himself appears a few seconds later. He does not deviate from the polite behaviour he is renowned for, but will not be interviewed either.

"Excusez-moi, mais — Excuse me, I’m very sorry, but I do not receive journalists here any longer," he says, shaking his head apologetically and closing the door.