PAILIN, Cambodia – Fireworks cracked through the sky as smoke billowed from a cremation pyre holding the body of the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologue, who was handed two life sentences in his sunset years for committing genocide and crimes against humanity, thus bringing his five-day funeral to an end on Friday in Cambodia’s Pailin province.
Nuon Chea, known as “Brother Number Two” for being regime head Pol Pot’s right-hand man, died on Sunday evening at the age of 93.
A few hundred mourners, including family and former Khmer Rouge members, as well as 93 monks – corresponding to his age – gathered to mark Nuon Chea’s final journey in a day of Buddhist funeral rites, chanting and prayers at a temple whose entrance was guarded by police.
Nuon Chea’s body arrived from Phnom Penh’s Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital on Monday and since then had been lying inside the uncompleted pagoda at the Thai border in Pailin province, one of the Khmer Rouge’s last strongholds.
Funeral rites were conducted throughout the week, culminating in Nuon Chea’s cremation on Friday.
Earlier in the day, his body was transferred under a white sheet from his elaborate metal coffin to a smaller wooden one, both decorated in gold and blue.
Mourners, including his two daughters Ly Bunthoeun, 58, and Lao Chea Linda, 52, cried and prayed around his body as monks chanted.
Nuon Chea’s family then draped his body in new clothes: a pale blue shirt, dark trousers and black dress shoes, with a rattan fan added.
His coffin was later carried in a procession three times around the pyre before being put into its resting place inside.
At 7 pm local time, the wooden structure was kindled and his corpse was engulfed by flames atop the pyre, which was over 10 meters (33 feet) tall and draped in flashing lights while fireworks sparked in the night sky.
After 100 days, Nuon Chea’s family is set to decide on a future memorial site.
Former Khmer Rouge navy commander Meas Muth, 80, was also in attendance, walking around with a cigar in his mouth. Although he took part in the ceremonies, he largely kept to himself, protected by a minder who said he was not well enough to talk to reporters.
Meas Muth was charged by the United Nations-backed court in 2015 with alleged genocide, crimes against humanity – including murder, enslavement and torture – and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions at worksites including Tuol Sleng prison and in and around the Cambodian islands.
He continues to live freely and it remains unknown if he will face trial, as national and international co-investigating judges are divided on whether he held high-enough seniority in the regime to fall within the court’s jurisdiction.
More than 1.7 million people – around a quarter of the Cambodian population – died from execution, starvation and forced labor during the Khmer Rouge’s rule from 1975-79 in which it set out to establish an agrarian utopia.
On Thursday, Nuon Chea’s daughter Ly Bunthoen told EFE her father was “a good man, a good person and a good friend.”
When asked about her father’s unrepentance for his role in the brutal regime, Ly Bunthoen said: “My father did nothing wrong. He struggled for the people.”
Youk Chhang is a survivor of the genocide, the executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia and winner of the 2018 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Asian counterpart of the Nobel Prize. He told EFE Nuon Chea’s family “may lack the understanding of a legal conviction.”
“But if they can just simply turn around themselves and ask any Cambodians on the streets, then they will understand why the entire nation wants to punish Nuon Chea,” he said.
“If they look around a bit further, they will find at least 20,000 mass graves across Cambodia. It was Nuon Chea and his comrades who were responsible for it,” Youk Chhang added. “He will be remembered in Cambodian history as nothing but evil.”
Nuon Chea was arrested in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for crimes against humanity by the UN-backed court in Phnom Penh.
Last year, the court handed him a second life sentence for genocide and crimes against humanity, among others, which is still pending an appeal.
The trials against the leaders of the Khmer Rouge began in 2011 with two other defendants: former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife and former Minister of Social Affairs, Ieng Thirith, who died in 2013 and 2015, respectively.
Pol Pot died in 1998 at the last bastion of the Maoist guerrillas in the jungles of northern Cambodia.
The court, set up in 2006 after a long negotiation between the UN and the Cambodian government, has received criticism for the duration of the process, its high cost ($300 million) and political interference.
The first verdict was issued in July 2010 against Kaing Guek Eav, aka Duch, who was initially sentenced to 35 years. On appeal, the punishment was raised to life imprisonment for his responsibility in the torture and death of more than 12,000 people at the Tuol Sleng prison.
The Khmer Rouge banned Buddhism and many of its symbols were destroyed. Monks were defrocked and put to work growing rice, and pagodas were no longer allowed to be used for religious purposes. Some even became pig farms.
The regime had a “discriminatory intent” against Buddhism: it referred to monks as “worms” or “leeches,” dismissed the religion as mere superstition and Buddha as “only concrete,” according to the verdict that last year sentenced Nuon Chea to live out his days in prison for crimes against humanity of persecution on religious grounds, among his many other convictions.
Ironically, it was a legion of nearly a hundred Buddhist monks that saw Nuon Chea off to his final resting place.