Mourners pay final respects to Khmer Rouge 'Brother Number Two'

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Pailin (Cambodia) (AFP) - Crowds gathered for the funeral of "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea on Friday, paying their final respects to a man considered the chief ideologue of Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge regime.

More than two million people were slaughtered under Pol Pot's Marxist reign in the 1970s in Cambodia, where deep -- and often unspoken -- cleavages remain over the legacy of the Khmer Rouge.

Nuon Chea, who died Sunday in hospital at age 93, was one of Pol Pot's most trusted deputies. Last year, he was sentenced to life in prison by a UN-backed tribunal for genocide against ethnic minority groups.

The former law student remained unrepentant up until the end of his life, and in 2013 told the tribunal that his "treacherous" subordinates were to blame for the killings.

On Friday, hundreds of relatives and former cadres lit incense and prayed as robed monks chanted at a temple in western Pailin province, where he was cremated as evening fell on a towering pyre.

The area was the last holdout of the Khmer Rouge after the regime collapsed.

Mourners followed his coffin as it was carried to a crematorium next to a table of offerings and a portrait of the elderly Nuon Chea wearing his trademark oversized sunglasses.

"He is my hero. I love him because his leadership was protecting the country's territory from invasion by neighbouring countries," Keo, an ex-Khmer Rouge fighter, told AFP.

"He is a real nationalist," he said, speaking at the Buddhist temple that Nuon Chea helped to build in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold near the Thai border.

Former Khmer Rouge naval chief Meas Muth, who has also been accused of genocide and crimes against humanity in a stalled criminal case, also attended Friday's hours-long ceremony, saying he had come to "bid a final farewell" to his former superior.

- Painful history -

The reign of terror led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot left some two million Cambodians dead from overwork, starvation and mass executions from 1975 to 1979.

Nuon Chea was not arrested until 2007. He was convicted alongside former titular head of state Khieu Samphan, who is appealing his sentence.

They are among just a handful of former Khmer Rouge leaders to face justice in Cambodia, where critics say costly, drawn-out trials have failed to punish perpetrators.

Pol Pot, who wanted to transform Buddhist-majority Cambodia into an agrarian utopia, died in 1998 without facing trial.

Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary and his wife also died before they could be tried.

"Many other senior Khmer Rouge leaders were spared their day in court," Human Rights Watch said this week, calling on Prime Minister Hun Sen to push for more prosecutions.

But Hun Sen -- himself a former Khmer Rouge cadre -- has come out against any further cases, claiming it would plunge the country into instability.

Even in death, Nuon Chea's chequered legacy and his frequent attempts to downplay his crimes could not be ignored.

"The allegations against him are so unjust. No leaders would kill their own people, otherwise they don't have people to lead," his daughter Ly Bunthoeun told AFP.

Since surrendering to the government in 1998 under a deal that doomed the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea has acknowledged deaths that took place under the regime he helped control, but denied he was in a position to stop the carnage.

Many Cambodians talk of the need to move on from the painful, knotted chapter of the country's recent history, with survivors and perpetrators of violence still often sharing communities.

One man who attended Friday's ceremony said he was forced to build dams during the Khmer Rouge reign, but had forgiven his former punishers.

"I no longer hate him because it's been a long time," he told AFP, asking not to be named.

"What he did to Cambodians was an example for leaders around the world not to follow."

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