Guest Column

The Long-Lived Tyrants of the Khmer Rouge—and Myanmar

By Dr. Myint Zan 7 August 2019

It was apparently the ancient Greek dramatist Menander (ca. 342-291 BCE) who stated that, “Whom the gods love dies young. The death of the former Khmer Rouge deputy leader, “Brother No. 2” Nuon Chea, at the ripe old age of 93 arguably indicates that in the case of those whom the good “gods” do not love, they are reluctant, for quite a long time indeed, to bring them into their midst or even to consign them to Hades (the ancient Greeks’ conception of the “home of the dead”).

The aim of this piece is not to rehash the facts already narrated in the obituaries of the person who—more than allegedly, but actually—played a major role in at least indirectly causing the deaths of up to 1.7 million Cambodians (out of an estimated population of around 7 million in the mid to late 1970s).

After years of preparation and trial and about 40 years after he committed his crimes, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia found Nuon Chea guilty, in 2014, of crimes against humanity and, in 2018, of genocide. According to the many reports published upon his death, during his trial Brother No. 2 was not only unrepentant (that would be too much to expect, one supposes, of most, though perhaps not all, mass murderers, especially politically motivated ones) but was quite arrogant, defiant and rude in his behavior in court.

A New York Times obituary stated that his “defense” partly read out by his lawyer consisted of 500 pages with 4,000 footnotes. This narration reminded the writer of the late Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, who apparently wrote about  4,000 pages of “memoirs” when he ruled the country from 1944 until his death in 1985.

Of course, the 500-page document was mainly written by Nuon Chea’s lawyer(s), but still this writer makes the association of ideas with Hoxha (who declared Albania to be an atheistic state in 1967) and who died in power (unlike Nuon Chea).

Still, Nuon Chea, who died “peacefully” or at least in comfort, lived considerably longer than Hoxha. Bad as Hoxha’s crimes were they were not, at least arguably, as bad as those committed by the late Nuon Chea, the late Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan. “Brother No. 1” Pol Pot died in April 1998. Former Khmer Rouge President Khieu Samphan, now 88, was, like Nuon Chea, convicted of crimes against humanity and genocide in 2014 and 2018 respectively.

Indeed, Khieu Samphan’s full name and title would be “Dr. Khieu Samphan”. He earned his doctorate in economics at the University of Paris in 1959. The title of his doctoral thesis in English translation is “Underdevelopment in Cambodia”. It was translated into English by Laura Summers in 1976 when His Excellency Dr. Khieu Samphan was president of Democratic Kampuchea.

Similarly, though not French-trained like Khieu Samphan and Saloth Sar—Pol Pot’s birth name—Nuon Chea did study law at Thammasat University in Thailand. (Saloth Sar studied in France from 1949 to 1953, but did not obtain a degree or diploma.)

It is indeed ironic that the Khmer Rouge regime, headed at least nominally by a doctorate holder from a prestigious university (Khieu Samphan) and the more secretive Nuon Chea, who studied law at a foreign university, would, during the Khmer Rouge years from April 1975 to January 1979, allegedly kill many if not most educated persons, persons with university degrees including law degrees, persons who could speak foreign languages and (so some reports stated) those who wore spectacles!

A brief juxtaposition can be made between Nuon Chea and Enver Hoxha, who may or may not have met. A quick search on the web reveals that the late King/Prince—and dare I say it, wily, opportunistic and egotistical—Norodom Sihanouk did meet Enver Hoxha in Tirana (the capital of Albania) a few times in the 1970s when Sihanouk was fully cooperating with the Khmer Rouge, whom he had persecuted in the 1960s. In contrast, from 1970 to 1975, the Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk were allies in their “struggle against US imperialism and the Lon Nol clique”. (Lon Nol led the right-wing coup that overthrew Sihanouk in March 1970.)

Perhaps even less well known than the People’s Republic of Albania-Democratic Kampuchea relations during the Khmer Rouge period (in the mid to late 1970s) are the then relations between the governments (shall we say regimes) of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma and Democratic Kampuchea. Indeed, President (and former General) Ne Win was the first head of state to visit Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia, from Nov. 26-29, 1977.  Though Ne Win was met at Phnom Penh airport by President Khieu Samphan and feted at dinners, it is not known with certainty whether or not he met either Pol Pot or Nuon Chea.

There is a reason Ne Win was the first head of state to visit Democratic Kampuchea. It was based on a strategy Ne Win adopted vis-à-vis Burma’s northern and eastern neighbor, China.  Through maintaining friendly relations with the Khmer Rouge regime—of which China was a major ally—Ne Win had hoped that China would reduce its support for the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which was then fighting the Ne Win regime. It seemed to work.  Almost contemporaneously with Ne Win’s visit and the return to power of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese government became less supportive of the underground CPB, which then had military and political bases in the China-Burma border areas and inside China itself.

There are at least two biographies of Pol Pot (in the English language), one by David Chandler and another by Philip Short. The writer is not aware of any full-length biography of Nuon Chea in English or English translation.

There is a full-length “political biography” of General Ne Win, General Ne Win: A Political Biography, by Professor Robert Taylor, published in June 2015. In his very indulgent biography of Ne Win, Taylor wrote to the effect that during the mid to late 1970s when news of the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Democratic Kampuchea became known inside Burma, quite a few people expressed their “gratefulness” (if not gratitude) to Ne Win and his regime. The reason for these people feeling “much obliged” to Ne Win, according to Taylor, was that in Burma the Khmer Rouge-like communists were not in power, thanks to Ne Win.

This writer was in Burma during the whole period of April 1975 to January 1979 when the Khmer Rouge was in full power. And he has not heard of any expression of thanks, so to speak, to the “Big Daddy” (“Aphay Gyi” in transliterated Burmese)—the appellation given to the dictator by the sycophants and supposed admirers around him—for such “mercies”.

In his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, first published in 1949, George Orwell did coin the term “Big Brother”. But even Orwell’s “vision” was not dystopian enough to envisage a regime like the Khmer Rouge, which would abolish both money and religion as early as 1975, almost 10 years before the year 1984. Nor did Orwell envisage the hierarchy of “Brothers No. 1 and 2” in Cambodia, which became apparent as early as the mid-1970s. The exact term “Big Daddy” used by some of Ne Win’s underlings cannot be discerned in Nineteen Eighty-Four, either. The future dictator Ne Win was about 12 to 16 years old when Orwell worked as a British police officer in colonial Burma from the years 1922 to 1926. (It should be added that the appellation “Big Daddy” or “Big Father” was only given to Ne Win by a select group of the dictator’s underlings and was not a formal, official designation like those accorded to Pol Pot and Nuon Chea respectively in the Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia.)

Comparatively, Ne Win was much less ruthless and—let’s be fair—far less cruel or indeed treacherous a dictator than either Enver Hoxha or indeed Pol Pot, who was described by his erstwhile co-operator Norodom Sihanouk as “the master of cruelty.” However, Ne Win lived longer than Hoxha and Pol Pot. Hoxha died in office after ruling Albania with an “iron fist” (as a 2016 biography puts it) for 40 years. Ne Win, after formally ruling Burma for over 26 years, continued to “guide” his erstwhile underlings “in retirement” during the military regimes of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) and the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Ne Win only had to spend the last 10 months or so of his life under supposed house arrest, and a very comfortable one it was too.

To paraphrase, extend or revise the ancient Greek dramatist Menander, “the gods” can be whimsical when they parcel out their rewards and punishments. The cruel, unrepentant, arrogant Nuon Chea might have gotten just a shade of his just desserts, in that he was under house arrest in the last 11-plus years of his life. Nuon Chea was tried and convicted with all the legal paraphernalia and protections being given to him. A few decades earlier he and his Khmer Rouge colleagues did not accord to their victims—at least hundreds of thousands of their countrymen and women—even an iota of the protection and rights generously afforded to them as criminal defendants accused of the most serious crimes.

Admittedly, or ostensibly, the less cruel dictators were Enver Hoxha and—let’s give the “not quite a Devil” his due—somewhat lesser dictator than Hoxha, Ne Win. Still, neither Hoxha nor Ne Win received their just—or for that matter, unjust—desserts in their long lives for all or any misdeeds they committed during their long (mis)rules.

Dr. Myint Zan taught law and law-related subjects at universities in Malaysia, Australia, the South Pacific and the United States from 1989 to 2016.