SALA KRAO DISTRICT, PAILIN — Ly Kimseng sat inside the monk’s dining hall in Pailin province’s Sala Krao district, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold nestled between Battambang and Thailand. To her left was an assortment of Buddha statues. And to the right, the temple’s morgue where her late husband lay waiting to be cremated.
“He was a person with integrity, honesty, and a pleasant being and he had never been arrogant both at home and outside,” Ly Kimseng, 84, told VOA Khmer last Thursday.
Near the morgue was a small area decked in traditional colored blue and gold cloth, and a large framed photograph of an aged man, pictured wearing dark glasses and a warm coat. The image will be familiar for observers of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – a hybrid tribunal constituted to investigate and prosecute crimes under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s.
Ly Kimseng’s husband was chief Khmer Rouge ideologue Nuon Chea – or ‘Brother No.2’ as he was known in the genocidal regime. The 93-year-old was pronounced dead at Phnom Penh’s Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital on August 4 by the U.N.-assisted Cambodian tribunal.
As an avalanche of reactions flooded in from genocide survivors, Cambodians and international observers, Ly Kimseng remembered her husband fondly, but admitted parts of his life were a no-go.
“He never told me anything about his state of affairs at work,” she said. “He always had his secret business to attend to and never told me anything.’’
At the time of his death, Nuon Chea was serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity and was appealing a separate genocide conviction. Despite being in the dark about her husband’s “state of affairs,” Ly Kimseng is quick to reject the charges and convictions against him.
“No! I totally do not believe that because I never saw him do such things,” she said.
Choosing not to answer any more questions about her late husband, Ly Kimseng instead talked about his favorite foods, Khmer-style vegetable and fish soups. She said that Nuon Chea and Khmer Rouge head Pol Pot trusted only her cooking, providing a glimpse into the paranoia that enveloped the ultra-communist regime.
“[They were] fearful of being poisoned – fearful that somebody would poison [them],” Ly Kimseng said, as cremation preparations continued around her. “They were always careful like that.”
Nuon Chea was cremated in an elaborate ceremony Friday evening, at the Prum Kiri Morokot Wat in Pailin town, one of the main former Khmer Rouge strongholds in northwestern Cambodia, located less than 10 km from the Thai border. Laid to rest in a coffin, Nuon Chea’s body was dressed in a white and blue shirt, black trousers, face covered with a white cloth, as per tradition, and the familiar dark glasses covering his eyes.
At around 4 p.m., the coffin was carried to a nearby funeral pyre. In attendance were family members and a few former Khmer Rouge soldiers, closely listening to a eulogy delivered by the Wat’s chief monk, Ven Chansomai.
The short statement made no mention of the Khmer Rouge, the failed agrarian utopia of Democratic Kampuchea, or the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
“He was a person who was thorough, serious, and precise in his work and he was loyal to the nation and people; putting national interests first,” read out the chief priest – relaying a sentiment held by Nuon Chea’s close family. His body was cremated at 7:15 pm that evening.
A day before the cremation, Lau Chealinda was milling around the temple premises overseeing preparations for her father’s funeral. The third of four children, Lau Chealinda was also drafting the funeral eulogy. She made clear that her father’s involvement in the Khmer Rouge would not be emphasized at the funeral.
“I do not need to answer on this issue,” Lau Chealinda said. “I do not want to answer.’’
She said her father’s legacy will be judged by history, adding that it was up to the Cambodian people to make their own assessments.
“Whatever people think, perceive, and make judgement on him, it will be up to them to do so. I cannot force people think this or that about my father,” Lau Chealinda said.
Friendly and talkative, Lau Chealinda is instead keen to provide insights into her father’s personal life. She was born in Phnom Penh in 1967, at a time when Nuon Chea was surreptitiously attempting to recruit students, teachers and monks into the ranks of the then-nascent communist party.
She remembers growing up with a father who was not “mean,” but also not “too pleasant.” An avid reader, Lau Chealinda recollects how Nuon Chea immersed himself in Buddhist teachings, philosophy and biographies of world leaders.
“In him I remember a man with manly strengths and a good father with wisdom,” Lau Chealinda said. “[He] sacrificed individual and family interests for collective causes. In short, he sacrificed everything.”
But not all of Nuon Chea’s family were spared the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, under which an estimated 1.7 million people were killed. Phou Poun is Nuon Chea’s sister, the fifth in a line of six siblings, who was adopted by an uncle and aunt. As a result, Nuon Chea never met Phou Poun nor shared childhood memories with her.
Little did she know her brother’s extreme ideology would not spare her or her family. She lost her husband after he was executed for serving the US-backed Khmer Republic, the 1970s-regime toppled by the Khmer Rouge insurgency in April 1975.
“They forced me to work on many assignments, ranging from growing rice to [making] handicrafts – everything!” Phou Poun said, pointing out that she lost three of her seven children.
Her first encounter with Nuon Chea was only when he surrendered to the Hun Sen government in 1998.
“We did not discuss anything much in our first meeting besides asking about each other’s well-being. But I felt very happy, you know, that we siblings were reunited,” Phou Poun said, on the sidelines of the funeral service.
Like other family members, Poun said his legacy would oscillate between two extremes – love and hate.
“Different people cannot have a uniform thought; some may love him while others may hate him,” she said.
Nuon Chea remained unrepentant and recalcitrant of his involvement in the Khmer Rouge and the mass killings across Cambodia. He has instead suggested that a large number of deaths were committed by the Vietnamese-backed factions of the regime, which eventually, in 1979, drove back and defeated other factions of the Khmer Rouge supported largely by China.
But for Youk Chhang, there is no debate over Nuon Chea’s legacy.
“In the history of Cambodia, Nuon Chea is a criminal,” said the director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a group tasked with documenting the regime’s atrocities.
Youk Chhang said Nuon Chea embodied the “war-loser mentality,” never willing to admit any guilt in the mass killings.
“It is impossible that the truth will be cremated with his body,” Youk Chhang said. “The truth remains in the evidence and facts of what happened.”
Back at Wat Prum Kiri Morokot, Nuon Chea’s funeral concluded. The Buddhist temple where he is laid to rest, was also a spiritual sanctuary for the former Khmer Rouge leader following his surrender in 1998 and till his arrest in 2007.
The small hut Nuon Chea and Ly Kimseng lived in was a stone’s throw from the temple and he regularly attended major religious celebrations. Ly Kimseng said that Nuon Chea prayed each night before going to bed and said that he remained faithful to Buddhism in his advanced age – a far cry from the ultra-communist regime he engineered where monks were murdered, temples destroyed and freedom to pursue spiritual fulfillment was taken from Cambodian citizens.
Having helped establish the Wat in 1999, Nuon Chea was close to the temple’s chief monk, Ven Chansomai. The two spent time discussing Buddhist scripture and learnings, with Nuon Chea even offering to teach the monk Thai. Nuon Chea studied law in Thailand’s Thammasat University, where he was first introduced to Thai communist cells.
But these friendly and spiritual discussions never ventured into the sensitive subject of Nuon Chea’s time in the Khmer Rouge or its opposition to religious activity, the monk told VOA Khmer.
“I asked him but he refused to answer saying ‘You do not need to know as they are old things,” Ven Chansomai said.