Ieng Sary, the luxury-loving and almost invariably smiling former Khmer Rouge foreign minister, who was standing trial for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Khmer Rouge tribunal here, died yesterday at age 88, before he could be brought to justice.
His wife, Ieng Thirith, a one-time university lecturer in English literature, specializing in William Shakespeare, and an epicurean chef – specialty: boneless chicken – was also originally on trial. But the so-called ‘social action minister’ of the Khmer Rouge was released last year from a holding center at the court, after having been found to be suffering from alleged dementia.
Certainly, Shakespeare would have produced splendid work from the years of drama and heartbreak here. Bizarrely, Ieng Thirith used to tell friends that she always liked to travel on Swissair because of its flag of a white cross on a red background, similar to the red cross on a white background used by the Red Cross. She maintained that Swissair was ‘less likely to be attacked by terrorists’ – ironic for an organization that seemed to specialize in mass murder.
Ieng Sary was a brother-in-law of Pol Pot, ‘Brother Number One’ of the Khmer Rouge, and they married two sisters. (Pol Pot’s wife went insane, and he re-married). Ieng Sary was thus part of an inner circle, many related by marriage, of the Paris-educated elite of the Khmer Rouge who studied Marxism at a time the creed was prominent in French universities.
Having been introduced to Ieng Sary in 1971 at a diplomatic reception in China by King Norodom Sihanouk, who died last 15th October in Beijing at age 89, and who was cremated here early last month with great ceremony and epic mourning, I was the first journalist to interview Ieng Sary in September, 1975, after the fall of Phnom Penh in April that year.
I was attending a non-aligned conference in Lima, Peru, – Sihanouk was one of the body’s founders – when I saw Ieng Sary approaching the entrance and I called out ‘Sok Sabai’ (‘good-health’ in Khmer which was about my strength in the language then) which attracted the attention of the three Khmer Rouge delegates.
He agreed to a talk, and I asked him about the seizure of the American cargo ship, the Mayaguez, and, more importantly, about the forced evacuation to the mine-strewn and dried-up countryside at that time of year, of the whole population of Phnom Penh.
in the interview published in the international edition of Newsweek, of which I was then Latin American correspondent – but not in the domestic edition in the US (the editors told me they did not wish, at that time, to expose their American readers with more upsetting news from Indochina) – that he had, at the time, ordered the immediate release of the Mayaguez, though the Americans had by then bombed Sihanoukville port, and claimed a major victory though they had just lost Cambodia and, two weeks later, were to lose Vietnam.
Ieng Sary said they had evacuated ‘three million people’ from Phnom Penh, as they had insufficient transportation to move food into the capital, therefore the people had to go where the food was (although when they got there they found next to none).
Ieng Sary, then the sole public face of the ruthless regime – and quite a bright and breezy one on the surface (though there were dark undertones in his manner) – under whose rule 1.7 million Cambodians were to die, said that the United States’ CIA, among other measures, had ‘planned to corrupt our troops and weaken their spirit of revolution ‘with loose women, alcohol, and money.’
Smiling all the time in a seeming affable way, as was his wont in public situations, Ieng Sary stressed that people in Cambodia had ‘complete religious freedom’ (though the cathedral had by then been demolished brick by brick).
Asked whither Long Boret, the prime minister in the then just defunct Lon Nol regime, was dead, he said: "Dead or not dead, he is a traitor and was judged by the people and (party) congress."
I saw quite a bit of Ieng Sary in the following years, and noticed how much he liked the good life, while Cambodians starved under one of the harshest revolutions in history.
For instance, he loved good brandy and, when he was travelling first class on international flights on Khmer Rouge missions, he liked to buy expensive perfumes, which he sniffed delicately, according to witnesses – though who they were for one never found out, presumably Mde Ieng Thirith.
Later, in the nineties, when I went by overcrowded Russian helicopter – scraping the treetops as it tried to gain height – to the Khmer Rouge HQ just after Ieng Sary’s branch of the, by that time, divided Khmer Rouge had opted to join the Phnom Penh regime, I saw that the mining of rubies and sapphires, and the illegal logging of wood, had made the Khmer Rouge, and particularly Ieng Sary, immensely rich.
The Khmer Rouge lived in comfortable bungalows, each with a tank parked outside the front door. It was a bizarre sight – guerrilla suburbia.
Ieng Sary greeted me jovially at a press conference he hosted, and recalled our meetings in Beijing and Lima. Still, I had seen by then, when he dropped his normally radiant smile, how dark and harsh his face could become – I would hate to have faced him across an interrogation table.
But it was impossible to trust any Khmer Rouge leader, or their fighting men. By then, 37 journalists had died in Cambodia, most at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. I myself was threatened by a mid-level Khmer Rouge leader who retains an ambassadorship in the present government.
During their reign in Cambodia, Ieng Sary himself endorsed the Khmer Rouge policy of ‘smashing to bits’ all those deemed to be enemies of the radical Khmer Rouge revolution, accusing them of preposterous crimes as ‘agents of the CIA, Soviet KGB or Vietnamese communists’ (or all three of them together) in torture and extermination camps like Tuol Sleng (S.21) in Phnom Penh.
The foreign minister was in charge of Boeng Trabaek foreign ministry camp (K.15) in Phnom Penh, where intellectuals induced by him to return from Paris were held and interrogated. Of 1,700 who returned, 75 percent were exterminated. Ieng Sary sent many of them to death at Tuol Sleng: though, interestingly there were some cronies from Paris days he protected.
The leader of this camp, Kaing Guek Eav, alias Brother Duch, is the only Khmer Rouge official – he was not one of the leadership but a mid-level apparatchik – so far successfully tried at the Tribunal, which is known formerly as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). Duch was sentenced to life imprisonment in early 2012.
Before he was brought before the Khmer Rouge tribunal six years ago, Ieng Sary lived in a luxurious Phnom Penh villa, next to a Buddhist temple, with Ieng Thirith.
I once went to the entrance and was met by Ieng Sary’s grandson. When he could not understand my spoken request to see Ieng Sary, I handed him a picture of myself with Ieng Sary, and two of his other diplomats in Lima, to show Ieng Sary and ask for an interview.
The boy returned and said his grandfather was too sick to see me, but that Ieng Sary was keeping the picture. I preferred not to end up in a Khmer Rouge archive and I managed, after some argument, to retrieve it.
Pol Pot himself died in suspicious circumstances in 1998 in his last redoubt just south of Cambodia’s north east border with Thailand – almost certainly poisoned by another Khmer Rouge leader, Ta Mok, known as ‘the Butcher,’ after the organization turned in upon itself in ferocious fighting.
This was after years of protection from China and Thailand. Before he died, Pol Pot ordered the deaths of Son Sen, his erstwhile defense minister, and his family, and after they had been killed, they were run over constantly into the ground by a heavy truck. It had all ended in tears.
The death yesterday of the erstwhile grinning high roller Ieng Sary, once personable but long ill from heart disease, after being hospitalized on 4 March for gastrointestinal ailments, leaves only two Khmer Rouge leaders standing trial.
They are Brother Number Two Nuon Chea, 86, the ideologue of the Khmer Rouge regime, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 81, in the process known as case 002.
Brother Number two Nuon Chea, who was earlier articulate and outspoken, but is most assuredly a mass murderer, has himself been ill, and one wonders how long the tribunal, which started work six years ago and is way over budget at US$173.3 million, can go on. Only Khieu Samphan is in better health, while waspish in attitude, though his crimes may be lesser than the others.
But the tribunal itself is not currently working because of a strike by hundreds of local employees who have not been paid for three months, though they may soon resume work on payment of one month’s back wages. Foreign governments may balk at giving more funds, after earlier corruption on the Cambodian side of the ECCC.
Interestingly, Nuon Chea’s body is being taken to a former Khmer Rouge stronghold at Phnom Malai, on the western border with Thailand for cremation next week.
While one might think it strange that the supposedly defeated Khmer Rouge still have their own base areas, it is just one of the many anomalies here. For instance, Ieng Sary’s son is deputy governor of a town further south.
For example, the three leading figures of the present government are former Khmer Rouge, headed by prime minister Hun Sen, though they were originally in the pro-Vietnamese, pro-Soviet branch of the communist party, while those on trial at the ECCC are from the pro-Chinese faction.
Hun Sen is determined there should be no new Khmer Rouge trials, while the minority foreign component of the ECCC believes there should be indictments of lower ranking mass murderers in cases 003 and 004, such as those who built a huge airport under Chinese guidance in Kompong Chnang province, at a loss of thousands of lives.
With Ieng Sary’s death, the court is in a quandary on how to proceed. How it will finally resolve itself is a mystery. In the end, one wonders, will justice be seen to have been done?
(James Pringle covered the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia for Reuters, Newsweek, and the Times of London.)