A Khmer Rouge Leader Apologizes, Sort of

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal reacted with some surprise in Phnom Penh yesterday when Nuon Chea, Brother Number Two of the Khmer Rouge, told a civilian victim who had lost his parents to the Khmer Rouge. "I am bearing the responsibility from my heart."

The articulate 86-year-old Khmer Rouge leader, who is in indifferent health, was speaking from his holding cell by video link to the court, when he said: "I, of course, was one of the leaders so I am not rejecting responsibility. In my capacity as a member of Democratic Kampuchea, I accept my responsibility. I express my sincere condolences to you for the loss of your family."

He did have a caveat, however, saying he had not been part of the executive branch of the murderous organization. "I feel remorseful for the crimes that were committed intentionally or unintentionally, whether or not I knew about them or not. I take the responsibility morally."

Speaking in the court earlier yesterday, civil party witness Nou Hoan asked the defendants whether or not they could explain the "mysterious disappearance:” and presumed murder of high-ranking party members during the Khmer Rouge regime, like Hu Youn and Hu Nim, who were regarded as Khmer Rouge leaders with a certain integrity.

Khieu Samphan has more than once lamented their mysterious deaths to me - probably killed by their brother Khmer Rouge.

Nuon Chea, who, though possibly a mass murderer, seems to come across as a 'reasonable man.' He is one of two defendants still being tried, followed the recent death of Ieng Sary, Brother Number Three and the foreign minister of the regime, whose cremation at the Khmer Rouge former HQ at Malai near the Thai border that I attended.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia said yesterday's remarks were Nuon Chea's first acknowledgement in court that he bears some responsibility, though he added that the tall, dignified-appearing Nuon Chea had made similar statements outside of court.

"He's been using this kind of language before," Chhang added. "When you look at what he's said in the past 15 years, in his conversations, in his interviews, he's also said: 'I was one of the leaders.'"

"It's not a full apology," Cchang added. Nevertheless, he said the statement would help the prosecution a lot, "because Nuon Chea had come forward now to admit some responsibility."

Chhang said that he thought Chea was turning the last page of his life's story, and "there's a feeling of regret, of apology.”

Chhang thought the testimony could be significant.

"I believe this somewhat apology is a piece of strong evidence again him," he said. "This is the first time he said it in front of the courtroom, in front of the judges; he always denied responsibility."

The other surviving accused in the court, Khieu Samphan, who was the public face of the Khmer Rouge at that time said: "My role in Democratic Kampuchea was to save my life."

He said that, while he was sorry for the pain and suffering, he had no role in the acts carried out by Khmer Rouge fighters.

"I would like to apologize to you that, during the Democratic Kampuchea period, I was not aware of the great suffering of Cambodian people, as you've been describing."

He told the court that he did not know what was going on at that time, because he was "not the effective leader of the regime."

Before he and Khieu Samphan were arrested and brought to the court, both men were available for interviews in the two cottages they lived in with their wives near the Thai border with Cambodia, though inside Cambodia. As a reporter, I several times went out of my way there near Pailin to talk to both men, though only Nuon Chea was in any way really forthcoming.

Though he was likely to have been more guilty than Khieu Samphan, Pol Pot's second-in-command came across as a more courteous man, whose wife provided visitors like myself with jack fruit in a bowl, and a glass of fresh water.

These courtesies were not usually forthcoming from Khieu Samphan, who had been a politician in local government before the overthrow of the late King Norodom Sihanouk in 1970, and was a modest figure in local politics, known for riding a simple bicycle instead of a plush car.

Nuon Chea, deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea also had a mind of high intellect, as has been proved time and again in the tribunal in his responses to questions and in speaking about the years of Khmer Rouge rule.

On the other hand, the 81 year old Khieu Samphan comes across as a carping man, with little charm, though many believe he was probably more innocent than most among the Khmer Rouge accused leaders.

While newspapers heralded these statements as Chea's first ever admission of responsibility, most tribunal lawyers and court observers agreed the statements, while noteworthy, registered somewhat more qualified views than originally reached the eye.

But, little by little, the story continues to emerge slowly, giving some legitimacy to the Tribunal, as in yesterday's hearing.