In early 2005, a young Cambodian monk named Rann Reuy was curious about the Khmer Rouge. He never learned about them in school—state censorship kept them out of the textbooks—but he’d done some of his own reading. He knew that the Khmer Rouge were a band of Communist purists who took control of Cambodia in April 1975 and promptly evacuated the cities, forcing the population to try out some of Mao’s worst agricultural ideas in rice paddies that would become known as the killing fields. He knew that after three and a half years of their rule, as many as two million Cambodians were dead, by starvation or execution. He knew that Pol Pot, who died in 1998, had been Brother Number One, and Nuon Chea, the party’s chief ideologue and supervisor of its brutal security system, had been Brother Number Two. He wanted to learn more. So he went to Pailin, a remote municipality along the Thai border, where old Khmer Rouge were known to retire in peace.
“When I reached Pailin,” Rann Reuy, now a journalist, said recently, “one of the monks said that Nuon Chea and his wife came to the pagoda on every holy day. I was so interested I asked him, ‘Could you one day guide me to meet him?’ He said, ‘Why not?’”
One morning in March, Rann Reuy approached Nuon Chea’s humble home, an elevated wooden shack with a corrugated tin roof. Nuon Chea welcomed Rann Reuy with a respectful bow. Ly Kimseng, Nuon Chea’s wife, made Rann Reuy a cup of hot Milo, and the monk and the Maoist settled into conversation. Nuon Chea was eager to talk religion.
“No other religion can compare to Buddhism,” Nuon Chea said, as Rann Reuy recalls it. “Buddhism teaches us right understanding, right living, right action, right concentration, right meditation. If all governments would follow Buddhism, no countries would ever have conflict.”
Rann Reuy was astonished. After all, as soon as the Khmer Rouge took power, they had executed as many of Cambodia’s senior and learned monks as they could and forcibly defrocked the rest. Most religious traditions were blotted out. The French priest and writer François Ponchaud recorded a 1975 Khmer Rouge directive: “If any worker secretly takes rice to the [monks], we shall set him to planting cabbages. If the cabbages are not full grown in three days, he will dig his own grave.” Two-thirds of Cambodia’s temples were destroyed; others were turned into pigsties or prisons. By the time the Khmer Rouge fell in early 1979, only a handful of monks remained.
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