Nuon Chea, the former Khmer Rouge leader known as Brother No. 2, told the UN-backed tribunal Tuesday he and Pol Pot had purposely designed the mass exodus of Cambodians from Phnom Penh when the movement came to power in April 1975.
The eviction from the city to work camps in the countryside was the beginning of nearly four years of failed policies and internal strife that led to the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians under the regime, but Nuon Chea told the court Tuesday it had been done to protect citizens from US and Vietnamese counter-attack after the movement came to power.
“We had to temporarily evacuate people in Phnom Penh to wait and see the situation, how Vietnam would act and how the US would interfere, so people would not die,” said Nuon Chea, who wore glasses and spoke in an articulate voice.
Nuon Chea is charged with atrocity crimes, including genocide, alongside Khieu Samphan and Ieng Sary, for their roles as leaders of the regime.
When the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh, on April 17, 1975, they began marching people out of the city almost immediately.
Prosecutors at the court said this was the beginning of the mass atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, as people began dying immediately after they were forced to leave their homes.
Nuon Chea said the populace of Phnom Penh was divided up and sent to work in regions for rice cultivation and other agricultural labor.
“They came to work together [with others], ate communally and learned about the cooperative,” Nuon Chea said. “We rendered the people who didn’t know how to work into workers.”
Starvation set in, he said, because of “betrayal” by local powerbrokers.
Ieng Sary refused to answer questions from the court on Tuesday, while Khieu Samphan, in an hour-long statement, said he had been elevated to a powerless position as nominal head of the regime.