My first reaction to the recent death of Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea was to recall the phrase about “the banality of evil.” I can remember listening to Nuon Chea nearly a decade ago as he testified during the trial of Khmer Rouge leaders at the international tribunal near Phnom Penh.

The genocidal regime’s Brother No. 2 sounded calm — and indeed banal — refusing to show any regret for playing a key role in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians. They died in the late 1970s through torture, execution, starvation and forced labor. He was serving a life sentence when he died earlier this month at the age of 93.

The term “banality of evil” was first coined by the author Hannah Arendt when she covered the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in an Israeli court. The Israelis had captured Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 and subsequently tried him in Jerusalem for war crimes. He was convicted and hanged.

Most of the obituaries of Nuon Chea describe him correctly as the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologue and the right-hand man of Pol Pot, the radical Maoist movement’s leader. But Nuon Chea was much more than that. He was the Khmer Rouge’s chief organizer and, equally important, he was in charge of security.

“I don’t think the banality description fits him,” said Stephen Heder, a leading expert on the Khmer Rouge and a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London’s Centre of Southeast Asian Studies.

“He was not merely a functionary cog in the crushing wheel of history, but the steely, determined key figure whose job it was to turn Pol Pot’s radically fundamentalist Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist and Maoist dreams into reality by any and all means necessary,” Heder said.

Unlike Eichmann, Nuon Chea was “irreplaceable, and without his efforts what became the Pol Pot regime would never have come into being,” Heder said. “He indeed remained unrepentant to the end, not wavering ideologically or otherwise from his ruthless dedication as a true believer in Pol Pot’s revolutionary visions.”

Former Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot talks to a journalist in January 1998 in a jungle hideout in northern Cambodia shortly before his death. Photo: AFP / Patrick De Noirmont

I had covered the war in Cambodia as a reporter with the Christian Science Monitor on-and-off for five years, starting when the first fighting broke out in the spring of 1970 between war-hardened Vietnamese troops and an inexperienced US-backed Cambodian Army.

For most of the war, I and other reporters had little idea who the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were. But it was obvious they could be extremely brutal. Every reporter I knew who was captured by Khmer Rouge soldiers was killed.

This was in contrast to the Viet Cong, or North Vietnamese, who captured a number of reporters during the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia but eventually released them.

I know of only one exception, which occurred in 1970 when Vietnamese troops turned over two American photographer friends to the Khmer Rouge. I was with the two, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, just before they went on motorbikes up a highway in eastern Cambodia never to come back.

During the Cambodian War from 1970 until the spring of 1975, I saw a small group of Khmer Rouge defectors and, on another occasion, I took a photo of a single Khmer Rouge soldier with his arms tied behind his back. But none of us knew the names of the secretive Khmer Rouge leaders. Nor did most Cambodians.

It was only in 1974 that a French Roman Catholic priest gave me my first clear insight into the radical but still mostly faceless Khmer Rouge.

Reporter Dan Southerland on assignment in Cambodia in 1970. Photo supplied by author.

Father Robert Venet had lived in the Cambodian countryside for decades, residing as a missionary in a village where he had built a church, reservoir and fish farm. In 1974, the Cambodian Army had pushed northward from Phnom Penh into central Cambodia in an attempt to capture territory that had been lost to the Vietnamese.

When fighting erupted, Cambodian refugees began streaming by the thousands out of the area west of the provincial capital of Kompong Thom. Among them was Robert Venet.

Executed for small ‘crimes’

Venet helped me to interview some of the refugees and told me of the harsh restrictions the Khmer Rouge were imposing on local villagers. In the village where Venet had lived for decades, the Khmer Rouge began executing people for crimes as small as stealing a chicken or raising the mildest objections to their conduct.

Dissenters or those accused of other “crimes” were taken from their homes and told they were going to see “higher authorities.” They never returned. Many villagers resented restrictions on religious practices and the fact that the Khmer Rouge put Buddhist monks to work in rice fields.

Fortunately for Venet, Vietnamese troops in the area he worked in heard of his popularity among local villagers and provided him with enough protection to get him out before the area fell under Khmer Rouge control.

After a five-year war against the US-backed Cambodian government, the Khmer Rouge took power after the fall of Phnom Penh in mid-April 1975. They immediately began rounding up and executing officials who had failed to escape the city. I left Phnom Penh just a few days before the takeover.

They ordered the inhabitants of Phnom Penh to immediately leave for the countryside. This massive exodus from the capital turned out to be a disaster for many – and it was listed as one of the war crimes that Nuon Chea faced many years later.

The Khmer Rouge also began rounding up and killing Vietnamese living in Cambodia who had survived killings by Cambodian troops. They also killed members of the Cham Muslim minority, which was another charge that Nuon Chea faced.

Outside of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge Tribunal pronouncement of the judgment in case 002/02 against defendants Nuon Chea, former deputy secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, and Khieu Samphan, former head of state of Democratic Kampuchea. Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 16, 2018. Photo: AFP
Outside the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in Phnom Penh as the judgment on case 002/02 against Nuon Chea was pronounced on November 16, 2018. Photo: AFP

Years after the war’s end, I traveled to a village in Cambodia to meet Pol Pot’s brother, Saloth Nhep.

He told me that during the war he had no idea who the secretive Khmer Rouge leaders were. Only in 1976, after the war was over, did he learn from a notice posted in his commune’s cafeteria that his brother, whose real name was Saloth Sar, was then the country’s top leader.

Once international-supported trials of the Khmer Rouge leaders began three decades later, we learned much more about the Khmer Rouge. At the end of March 2009, the first of its key people to testify before the United Nations-backed tribunal was Kaing Guek Eav, known by his alias Duch.

He ran a notorious torture center in Phnom Penh known as S-21 where few prisoners survived. He took orders from the top leaders, and compiled meticulous records.

Chief executioner

Unlike Nuon Chea, Duch provided details of how the Khmer Rouge operated that had not been previously known. He was the only one of four indicted Khmer Rouge officials who at that point came close to telling the truth about what had happened.

It is still difficult even today to understand how Duch transformed himself from being a diligent and kindly teacher into the chief executioner at S-21, where at least 14,000 Cambodians were killed. While some died after being brutally beaten, many also succumbed to slow deaths from starvation.

Many of the men and women imprisoned at S-21 had fought for the Khmer Rouge but were later deemed to be traitors. Most had no idea why they were there.

In the meantime, Hun Sen, Cambodia’s long-serving prime minister, objected to any further indictments under the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, claiming that they would lead to civil war. But his critics say that he’s trying to protect some of his own officials who served with the Khmer Rouge. Only four indictments were ever issued.

Some might ask whether the much-delayed Khmer Rouge Tribunal was worth the cost, which according to one estimate exceeded US$300 million.

I think that the best comment on this came from Elizabeth Becker, a former Cambodian War reporter and author of the book “When The War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution.”

“The tribunal accomplished the critical task of bringing justice in a country where the leaders had refused to discuss what had happened,” said Becker.

Tourists read a text on former KR leader Nuon Chea displayed for visitors at Tuol Sleng genocide museum in Phnom Penh in March 2013. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Becker said that once the trial began the Cambodian government dropped its silence on the subject. The Khmer Rouge period, including Nuon Chea’s role in the tragedy, is now taught in schools and debated.

The best way to think of the cost of the tribunal, Becker said, is to think of it in terms of the number of victims — an estimated 1.7 million.

“The tribunal acknowledged the victims, gave dignity to their lives, and condemned the genocidal regime,” she said. “In this light, the tribunal is a bargain.”