Cambodian Mass Murderer Goes Up in Smoke

Like a scene from Greek tragedy, the ailing widow of the late Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary wept bitter tears as she bade a last goodbye to her late husband at his bier on Thursday night at this former heartland former base of the murderous Khmer Rouge.

The 82-year-old Ieng Thirith, who was also one of the founding leaders of the Khmer Rouge, was released as a co-defendant last September after being judged unfit to face trial on the grounds of dementia. The Paris-educated teacher was social affairs minister of the Khmer Rouge, and had earlier taught English literature, specializing in the works of William Shakespeare.

Just two meters from her and within easy earshot, I saw and heard a woman who was not suffering from dementia, but who was articulate in her grieving, as she talked to her quietly weeping young granddaughters, although overall there were not many shedding tears among the mourners.

In her grief, this intellectual possible mass murderer seemed a Lady Macbeth- like figure, a case of life imitating art. But she was physically too frail and, in the view of the few correspondents here, would not have been able to withstand continued exposure to the strains of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal still functioning uncertainly in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital.

Though scarcely able to walk alone, and propped up by her sons, she left Malai, in northwestern Cambodia, close to the border with Thailand just before the actual cremation and fireworks display that marked Ieng Sary's passing.

The whole funeral represented a nearly unimaginable surreal scene, with - in one irony - Buddhist monks chanting prayers, though they had been persecuted, and numbers put to death. by the former Khmer Rouge leadership, while Buddhist temples were destroyed or damaged during Khmer Rouge rule.

As one of only a handful of reporters who made their way to this remote former base, I was invited to sit down and eat a meal of chicken curry as ceremonies got under way, though most former Khmer Rouge seemed uncomfortable, at first, mingling with the few foreigners who made their way here.

Since this is still heartland Khmer Rouge territory, people tend to have grim faces and some of the women still have pudding bowl hairstyles, once the revolutionary approved hairstyle. But since Ieng Sary surrendered to the Phnom Penh authorities in 1996, life has become better, and some people were courteous too, offering chairs and plastic bottles of cold water under a blazing sun .

Ieng Sary, a foreign minister the public face of the Khmer Rouge around the world, who died before a verdict could be reached in trial, was accused of war crimes, crimes against Cambodia and genocide during which 1.7 million Cambodian died of starvation, torture and illness as they labored in the slave camps of the Khmer Rouge.

He was accused of encouraging Cambodians in Europe to return home after the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975, and once home a few fortunate ones went to slave labor camps, while most of the others were executed in the S.21 torture and interrogation center. He also did intervene to assist former cronies of a Paris-educated elite, though others were executed as 'traitors.''

He surrendered his demoralized forces to the Phnom Penh government in 1996.

There are still two elderly co-defendants remaining before the court, whose trial began in June, 2011, though the tribunal has been plagued by frequent funding problems and alleged corruption.

Those still before the court are Nuon Chea, 86, 'Brother number two’ and the idealogue of the regime, and Khieu Samphan, 81, a former head of state of Democratic Kampuchea, the Khmer Rouge regime.

Michael G. Karnavas, Ieng Sary's defense lawyer, and a staff of foreign assistants, several young and attractive women, attended and took part in official mourning rites. "I think it is the beginning of the end of this tribunal because it has illustrated how fragile the situation is, given the health of the two remaining defendants.

"Ieng Sary is a figure of Cambodian history, and now his side of the story will not be heard," Karnavas said.

One of the senior Buddhist monks told the mourners that humans and animals were similar in some ways. "Even the elephant with four legs can sometimes trip and fall," he said. "'The same happens to humans."

Perhaps alluding to the massive wealth Ieng Sary is said to have accumulated through mining rubies and sapphires and selling wood logs in his control area, the monk said: "Nobody can take their wealth with them to the next world."

Victims of the Khmer Rouge in Phnom Penh have called for Ieng Sary's wealth to be distributed among those who suffered from Khmer Rouge rule. But most observers believe nothing will be done. Other former Pol Pot former followers in the present ruling class of former Khmer Rouge have also amassed fortunes.

Y Chhean, a local governor and former heavyweight bodyguard of Pol Pot, who died mysteriously in 1998, turned a switch to start the cremation at the funeral pyre. There were fireworks with loud reports until finally grey smoke was seen issuing from a chimney on top of the pyre. Ieng Sary was well and truly gone.

(James Pringle reported on the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia for Reuters and other news organizations.)