Friday, June 15, 2007

Meeting 'Brother Number Two'

Al Jazeera International, the 24-hour English-language news and current affairs channel, headquartered in Doha, are currently producing a series of reports from Cambodia in the form of their award-winning news anchor and presenter of their dynamic 101-East documentary programme, Teymoor Nabili, who joined the channel after experience with the BBC in London and CNBC in Singapore. Al Jazeera is funded by the Emir of Qatar. Here's Nabili's latest report from his visit to Pailin, in Northwest Cambodia, fresh from the news that the Khmer Rouge Tribunal has received the green light to begin in earnest.

Meeting 'Brother Number Two' - by Teymoor Nabili, in Pailin for Al Jazeera
The remote district of Pailin, in north-western Cambodia district is still dotted with no-go areas almost a decade after the last remnants of the Khmer Rouge finally surrendered to the government. Nonetheless regional politics in this isolated corner of Cambodia, close to the border with Thailand remain under the influence of former revolutionaries. Which is why one of the 20th century’s most notorious figures has been able to live an untroubled life here. But contrary to local rumour, the home of Nuon Chea (pictured), the former "Brother Number Two" of the Khmer Rouge, is guarded only by an unimposing sign. On our visit we found little evidence of his supposed personal guard force. Now in his 80s, Nuon Chea is a frail figure. He insists on hiding his eyes claiming they are too sensitive to light. But if he is physically frail, mentally he remains sharp. During our long conversation, his defence of the Khmer Rouge was robust and even though he does admit some mistakes were made, he is keen to confuse the issue.
Big Mistake: "I don't deny that I'm responsible," he told me. "I personally take responsibility for the bad fortune of the people during the three year period but I want to stress, what is wrong, what is right. "My mistake is that I did not get involved with the lower levels so was not able to discover that there were bad men hiding among the people. We did not go into the local level. This was a big mistake. "In Khmer we say, if you are careless, you lose, we had no intention of killing our people. We wanted people to have food and clothes and education. The bad people hid themselves among our people and killed them." With Cambodian and international judges having now agreed the rules to try former Khmer Rouge leaders, Nuon Chea's defence then will rest in part on the argument that victims were in fact enemy infiltrators – bad people – and not innocent civilians. The other key part of the defence will be denial. He claims that the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, or S-21, was the responsibility of other Khmer Rouge leaders.
Torture: They include men like Duch, the former head of the feared Santebal secret police, and Son Sen, the former defence minister, who reportedly developed the Khmer Rouge's own techniques for torture and interrogation. Duch, though, has said that Nuon Chean personally authorised the torture of the estimated 14,000 people who passed through Tuol Sleng. So what exactly is the purpose of torture in creating revolution? On this the former Brother Number Two is evasive. "I know S21, this I know," he says. "As for torture I don’t know, because I was not in charge of this. Son Sen was directly responsible for the prison because he was minister of defence and internal security at the time.” So he knew nothing about S21? "I knew. I didn’t mean I didn’t know about it. I didn’t know any details about the torture. I was just aware of the place in general." Photos on the wall suggest Noun Chea has made his peace with one time foe Prince Sihanouk and he seems to see no irony in playing with his grandson’s toy weapon but his most jarring comment is that he once considered becoming a buddist monk.
'Remorse': Buddhism is a faith of compassion, I ask him, so does he feel remorse for the souls that were lost and for the suffering? "I have remorse, I have regrets," he says. "It should not have happened. We tried our best but it happened like that against our intention." As the international court builds its case against him, Noun Chea says he is fully prepared to face his accusers. "If I wanted to flee, I would have done it a long time ago. Where would I go? I could flee in just one step to the Thai border. It’s near my house." The border with Thailand is indeed a few minutes drive from Nuon Chea's house. In the past, certain refuge would have been a matter of a short stroll away. But with the global spotlight now intensifying on Cambodia, and on Noun Chea in particular, it is now far from certain that he would even get past his own border security.

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