Khmer Rouge's unrepentant 'Brother Number Two' has died

He’s not nearly as well known as Pol Pot aka “Brother Number One,” but according to some Nuon Chea was the brains behind the Khmer Rouge and the mastermind behind the reign of terror that followed their takeover of Cambodia in 1975. Sunday, Chea died in a hospital at the age of 93. He had been convicted of by a special court of crimes against humanity in 2014 and convicted again in 2018 of genocide. Despite this, he never apologized or expressed any regret for his role in the deaths of millions of people:

Despite being sentenced by a UN-backed tribunal to life in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity, he was defiant until the end – showing no remorse and refusing to accept responsibility for the crimes committed on his watch.

“If we had let them live, the party line would have been hijacked,” he once told Cambodian journalist Thet Sambath, referring to “traitors” in the regime.

“These were enemies of the people.”…

Nuon Chea was appointed deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, later known as the Khmer Rouge, late in 1960.

He held this position as the Khmer Rouge guerrillas overthrew the US-backed Lon Nol regime in 1975 and inflicted one of the most extreme social experiments the world has ever seen, transforming Cambodia into a brutal mass worksite.

Nuon Chea and Pol Pot wanted Cambodia to become a pure, socialist state, one not tainted by religion, money, or private property:

When he came to power, he and his henchmen quickly set about transforming Cambodia – now re-named Kampuchea – into what they hoped would be an agrarian utopia.

Declaring that the nation would start again at “Year Zero”, Pol Pot isolated his people from the rest of the world and set about emptying the cities, abolishing money, private property and religion, and setting up rural collectives.

Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was killed. Often people were condemned for wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language…

Hundreds of thousands of the educated middle-classes were tortured and executed in special centres.

The most notorious of these centres was the S-21 jail in Phnom Penh, Tuol Sleng, where as many as 17,000 men, women and children were imprisoned during the regime’s four years in power.

Hundreds of thousands of others died from disease, starvation or exhaustion as members of the Khmer Rouge – often just teenagers themselves – forced people to do back-breaking work.

The Khmer Rouge regime only maintained power for four years, from 1975 to 1979, but during that time as many as two million people died by execution, starvation, and overwork. Pol Pot was convicted in a show trial in 1997 and died while under home confinement a year later. Nuon Chen and other leaders of the Khmer Rouge were finally arrested and put on trial in 2007.

Here’s Nuon Chea describing the necessity of a revolution which completely changed all of society to make it more progressive and to eliminate all forms of class oppression. As he sees it, the Khmer Rouge succeeded in creating a more equal society.

And here’s one more clip from the same film, Enemies of the People, in which Nuon Chea says their goal was to smash the human tendency toward individualism which they viewed as not compatible with their communist project:

If you showed these clips to progressive college students today, without telling them who was speaking, how many would consider him a wise man on the right track? What he’s saying here isn’t so different from some of what some of the Democratic Socialists in the Democratic Party might say in an unguarded moment.

Communist idealism swept over Cambodia in the late 1970s like a plague. But that plague is still with us. It’s just waiting for another chance to claim power, as it has in Venezuela over the last few years.