In a quiet, leafy Phnom Penh neighborhood, one of the chief architects of the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields” regime has made a home among the victims of his brutal movement.
Khmer Rouge Brother No 3 Ieng Sary, 72, and his wife Ieng Thirith, 70, live out their old age in palatial surroundings, in a home that is estimated to be worth $150,000 and is shaded by potted plants and high walls just a short stroll from Sothearos Boulevard.
Their revolutionary days behind them, the family lives a rather subdued life: They have constructed a stupa at their local Buddhist temple. They are spotted occasionally in Phnom Penh’s supermarkets. And they sport smart wheelchairs on their regular trips to Bangkok for health examinations.
Retirement for the one-time revolutionary leaders of Cambodia’s fanatical 1975 to 1979 Khmer Rouge regime appears to be privileged and comfortable.
But how long that will last-Cambodians and members of the international community continue to push for a joint UN-Cambodian government tribunal of former Khmer Rouge leaders-remains a burning question.
Outside Ieng Sary’s home, neighbors speak in hushed voices, with anger that ebbs and flows, as they recount the horrors to which they hold the elderly man accountable, and who today they still mildly fear.
“When I saw him first, I wondered why he came back to live with the people who were his victims. It’s amazing,” said a neighbor sitting a few meters from the ornately-gated entrance to Ieng Sary’s home.
“We suffered so much. When he came back, we thought that we would kill him when we saw him. He killed our parents and made us orphans,” the woman said.
Her parents died between 1977 and 1978 in the paddy fields of the northwest. Today, the woman is 46-years-old, a mother of two children and lives in a tiny wood and asbestos-roofed house opposite the Ieng Sary’s villa.
“I don’t want to kill him now. The country has laws and we should follow the law. But there must be justice. We can’t forget,” she said.
The woman’s sister tilts her chin in the direction of Ieng Sary’s white pillars, red-tiled roofs, manicured grass lawn and miniature pond and said simply: “I’m so angry I can’t speak.”
Ieng Sary has a book-publishing deal to write an autobiography about his time as a Khmer Rouge leader, though in his twilight years he is having trouble remembering all the events, relatives said recently.
But he need only to talk with his neighbors if he wants eye-witness accounts to jog his memory of the events in Cambodia when he was the Khmer Rouge regime’s deputy prime minister.
To speak without permission during the Khmer Rouge regime meant certain death, said Pov Than, 60, who lives nearby.
Today, if Pov Than had an opportunity to speak with Ieng Sary, he would probably ask why the Khmer Rouge killed his brother, sister-in-law and their children.
“By my thoughts, [Khmer Rouge leaders] must be tried. But a trial depends on the leaders… So it is useless for us to talk about that,” he said.
Some neighbors are more conciliatory and say the old man-who until recently was often seen exercising in the morning-should be left to continue his “ordinary” life in peace.
The Khmer Rouge fought their way from the jungles of the northeast Cambodia in the late 1960s to the streets of Phnom Penh, which they conquered in April 1975.
The victorious army of gun-totting child and teen-age communist warriors was led by a core group of French-educated intellectuals who re-named the country Democratic Kampuchea and unleashed an experiment in radical Maoism that caused the death of more than 1 million people.
Disease, starvation, forced labor and mass execution marked their three-year and nine-month regime, and earned the Khmer Rouge movement one of the 20th century’s most brutal reputations.
Yet none of the Khmer Rouge men and women who planned, implemented and approved-tacitly and actively-Democratic Kampuchea-era policies of atrocity have ever stood before a court of law.
Ieng Sary was Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the regime, and his wife Ieng Thirith served as Khmer Rouge Minister for Social Affairs. They were both at the heart of the small inner-circle of Khmer Rouge leaders who reigned during those years of terror.
Ieng Sary was able to swap his jungle base in Pailin for his plush Phnom Penh villa in 1996 after he defected with hundreds of rebel fighters to the government and received a royal amnesty for a conviction of genocide that had been handed down in Phnom Penh in 1979 by a Vietnamese-sponsored court.
But the ever-smiling Ieng Sary-the one-time international face of the Khmer Rouge-is a top candidate for prosecution if a tribunal for Khmer Rouge crimes is convened, and some in this quiet neighborhood are looking forward to that day.
A short walk down the tree-shaded lane near their home, Ieng Sary has built a burial stupa beneath two large Banyan trees at Wat Svay Pope pagoda.
“Ieng Sary knows how to pray well,” said Tieng Vutho, the temple’s deputy chief monk, whose father, two brothers, younger sister and grandfather died during the Khmer Rouge.
But it is not the Buddhist way to seek revenge or hold ill will toward Ieng Sary and the other communist leaders who spawned the policies that shuttered Cambodia’s temples, defrocked monks and outlawed all religious observance, Tieng Vutho said.
“I don’t know much about his life or what he did, or what he committed. But what he did, he will receive back in the next life,” Tieng Vutho said. “I just have sorrow and regret for the monks and the lay people. We have regret for what happened to the nation.”
In the grounds of the temple, the Ieng Sary family’s large concrete stupa commemorates a list of educated and privileged family relations, including two medical doctors, a doctor of international law, a diplomat, and an Okhna-the honorary title bestowed upon captains of big business.
Their stupa was inaugurated in April 2000, almost 25 years to the day that Phnom Penh was toppled, and the Khmer Rouge began its campaign to purge the privileged and eradicate the bonds of family, education, modern medicine and such “reactionary” religious practices as erecting monuments to the dead.
This leafy pagoda and the family’s large, ornate stupa is far from the anonymous mass graves and “killing fields” preferred by the hardened foot soldiers of their regime.
“Ieng Sary is like many other Cambodians, when they are young. They do not respect Buddha, but as they get older, they spend more and more time at the temple,” said Chea Pring, a 22-year-old monk.
The old couple are not seen often, several monks said.
But neighbors say they follow Buddhist festivals and will probably make an appearance during the current Pchum Ben ceremony-the day millions of Cambodians make offering to the spirits of deceased relatives, many of whom died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
Mom Savun, 27, said he was too young to remember the regime which killed his father and what he knows about Ieng Sary, Pol Pot and Khieu Samphan was learned in books that accused them of genocide.
As a Buddhist monk, Mom Savun says he cannot hate Ieng Sary or speculate on what his fate should be in this life, but he knows what religious teachings say about his possible fortunes in the next.
“In Buddhism, if he did bad things in this life he will receive misfortune in the next. When he is reborn he will probably be killed by a bad man,” Mom Savun said.
But karmic justice in the next life should not stop Ieng Sary from standing before a tribunal in this life, he said.
Ieng Sary was born in 1930 in the region of southern Vietnam known to many Cambodians as Kampuchea Krom. Reports say he changed his name from Kim Trang to the more Khmer-sounding Ieng Sary.
He left southern Vietnam after gaining acceptance in a Cambodian school and eventually ended up at Phnom Penh’s Sisowath High School, where he was to lead the first student protests demanding independence from France.
He won a scholarship in 1950 to study in Paris, and there he met Saloth Sar-later to be known and remembered as Pol Pot.
Both submerged themselves in the budding anti-colonial movement in Paris and the Cambodian section of the French Communist Party, which was then swept up in Soviet Union dictator Joseph Stalin’s brand of hard-line Russian communism.
At least 1 million people were executed and some 9.5 million were deported to labor camps for political offenses under Stalin’s rule.
Ieng Sary and Pol Pot cemented their friendship with family ties when they met and married the well-heeled and educated Khieu sisters-the daughters of a Cambodian judge.
Khieu Ponnary, the elder of the two, was the first Cambodian female to graduate from Sisowath High School with a Baccalaureate.
Khieu Ponnary and younger sister Khieu Thirith had moved to Paris where Khieu Ponnary studied Khmer linguistics and Khieu Thirith studied English literature, majoring in Shakespeare, at the Sorbonne.
Khieu Thirith married Ieng Sary in a Paris ballroom in 1951, Khieu Ponnary married Pol Pot, who was several years her junior, back home in Cambodia on Bastille Day in 1956.
The ideological and physical center of the Khmer Rouge movement as it swept to power in the 1970s-Ieng Sary, Pol Pot and the Khieu sisters earned the pejorative title of Cambodia’s “Gang of Four”-a reference to the radical faction led by the widow of Mao Tse-tung that tried to seize power after the iconic Chinese communist leader died in 1976 .
But the revolution took its toll on the powerful group of political in-laws.
Once renowned for her intense intellect, Khieu Ponnary had descended into premature old age and insanity by 1975.
Fixated on fears the Vietnamese were trying to kill Pol Pot and herself, Khieu Ponnary was kept under care and mostly separated from her husband during the regime and the years following Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979.
With her sister confined, Ieng Thirith became the de-facto “First Lady” of Democratic Kampuchea, according to Elizabeth Becker, a Washington Post journalist who visited Cambodia in 1978.
Ieng Thirith’s official post as Minister of Social Action and Education also made her responsible for the health and well-being of the Cambodian population during the 1975-1979 regime.
Like her husband, Ieng Thirith has denied any wrongdoing during her time at the top of Democratic Kampuchea.
“Most of the guilty people say that,” said Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the largest repository of research material on Khmer Rouge-era crimes.
Experts have found little incriminating documentary evidence against Ieng Thirith., though the search for the physical remnants of that period-Khmer Rouge doctors, nurses and others who can stitch together a clear picture of the role of the Minister of Social Action during Democratic Kampuchea-continues.
Ieng Sary’s nephew, a stocky, affable man who speaks several languages, said the old leaders of the regime now just want to live quietly.
His aunt, Khieu Ponnary, is 83-years-old and bedridden. She descended into madness decades ago and does not recognize any of her old friends and family. He does much of the caring for her, he said, speaking at the gates of Ieng Sary’s home.
Khieu Ponnary lives with the family, but she has forgotten her late husband Pol Pot, does not know that he remarried and had a child in the 1980s and was later denounced by his once loyal cadres, dying alone in 1998 in the malaria-infested jungles of Anlong Veng.
Of the handful of former Khmer Rouge officials who are still alive today some admit that “mistakes” were made during their regime but insist the numbers of those thought to have died are grossly over-estimated by historians, researchers and witnesses.
Brother No. 2 Nuon Chea-the ideological guru of the movement-and former Deputy Prime Minister Khieu Samphan defected to the government in December 1998 with the words “let bygones be bygones.”
Nuon Chea said he regretted all the people and animals who suffered during the war years, while Khieu Samphan said “history should remain history.”
They denied any knowledge of the mass executions or the brutality meted out on the country’s civilian population.
Ieng Sary’s nephew said the estimated number of deaths during the Khmer Rouge regime-which range from more than 1 million to about 3 million people-are wrong.
The dead may not even be in the tens of thousands and those killed were Khmer Rouge members, exterminated in the mad quest for internal spies by Pol Pot and his henchmen Nuon Chea and Ta Mok, the nephew said.
Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith were themselves victims of Pol Pot’s madness, since Ieng Thirath-Ieng Sary’s sister-in-law-was murdered by the Khmer Rouge during the regime, he said.
“They were like the [German] SS,” he said of Pol Pot and Nuon Chea and those that carried out the killing.
His aunt and uncle are good people, they defected to the government and a Khmer Rouge tribunal is a foreign demand, supported by those who want to see Cambodia descend into renewed conflict, he said.
Ieng Sary branded UN efforts in 1999 to establish a Khmer Rouge trial “incitement” that threatened the peace brought about by the defections of his old comrades Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan.
That same year, Ieng Thirith made a withering verbal attack on genocide researcher Youk Chhang claiming his years of analysis had not found a single ounce of real information about the Khmer Rouge movement.
Of Youk Chhang, she wrote: “The majority of the people of Cambodia [and not only in Pailin] are of the opinion that such an incompetent and mean person should be fired from his present position…his so-called findings are nothing but lies and defamation,” aimed at destroying the Cambodian nation.
She added that his genocide investigations should not allow him to “disparage other people…especially people who are true patriots and whose only ideal is the independence of their country and the well-being of their people.”
Youk Chhang responded briefly by extending an invitation to meet with Ieng Thirith to discuss “what really happened” and what her estimates were for the number of people killed during the Pol Pot regime.
Ieng Thirith never took up the offer, Youk Chhang said.
Planned autobiographies by Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea and Ieng Sary will probably not shed much light on those years, he said. He said that as former communists, their memoirs will probably be little different from propaganda.
Without the truth coming out in a Khmer Rouge trial and some contrition for the regime’s crimes, Youk Chhang said “the past presents a roadblock for the future of Cambodia.”
Ieng Sary’s nearest neighbor, Man Norin, who works at the Ministry of Tourism, has been one of lucky few offered an explanation about regime.
“[Ieng Sary] is a normal person… He used to tell me a lot of things about the Khmer Rouge regime. It was not his mistake. Everything that happened was up to Pol Pot,” Man Norin said.
Man Norin said he could “never forget” the Khmer Rouge regime, but those days have passed and Ieng Sary is now an old, and very ordinary, person.
Many others do not agree.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has declared several times in recent years that indicting Ieng Sary could lead to renewed fighting by those who remain loyal to him, mostly old comrades in Pailin.
But last August, the government reportedly changed its position on the Ieng Sary question.
Then-US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann said the government had given the UN a written promise that Ieng Sary could stand trial for war crimes.
Wiedemann added that a trial without Ieng Sary would not be credible, and whether the UN believed the government’s promise was a political question, not a legal one.
King Norodom Sihanouk’s 1996 amnesty absolved Ieng Sary of genocide, but Khmer Rouge trial observers note that Ieng Sary could still be tried under several other serious charges.
Ieng Sary has said there is no clear evidence as to who was responsible for the mass killing during Democratic Kampuchea, and he is not worried.
But Khmer Rouge expert Stephen Heder and legal expert Brian D Tittemore released a report in 2001 which suggested their was a prima facie case that Ieng Sary and six other former leaders were criminally responsible for atrocities.
In “Seven Candidates for Prosecution: Accountability for the Crimes of the Khmer Rouge,” Heder and Tittemore claim there is significant evidence of Ieng Sary’s individual responsibility for crimes, by repeatedly encouraging arrests and executions and failing to prevent the mass arrests and transfer to S-21 [Tuol Sleng prison] of prisoners.
Some 16,000 people were imprisoned at the Khmer Rouge S-21 torture center, many were photographed, forced to confess to non-existent crimes and then executed at the mouth of open-pit graves on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
No evidence exists proving Ieng Sary actively proposed or had the authority to order arrests or executions, but he was part of the same select information network as Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, and Khmer Rouge Defense Minister Son Sen, the experts said.
“Although [Ieng] Sary has on several occasions denied having had contemporaneous knowledge of [Democratic Kampuchea] policies of extermination, he in fact came as close as any senior DK official in power ever did to describing publicly and in real time the [Communist Party of Kampuchea’s] policy of executing such persons,” they said.
Prosecution will likely hang on establishing Ieng Sary’s “superior responsibility”-which renders military commanders and civilian leaders criminally responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates.
Trials of Nazi and Japanese war criminals and the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda used superior responsibility to form part of their prosecution cases.
That Ieng Sary should stand trial “is a matter of principle for a future [Cambodian] society,” Youk Chhang said.
Allowing Ieng Sary to live out his last days in comfort is an example to many other people in Cambodia that their criminal acts will also go unpunished, he said.
Despite the belated pressure to find Khmer Rouge culprits, in Ieng Sary’s neighborhood, opinions vary on the merits of finding justice 23 years after the regime crumbled.
Ask the young man selling fried noodles from a pushcart near Ieng Sary’s house, and he only knows of the old Khmer Rouge leader’s name from his parents.
“He used be a vicious killer, but now he’s normal,” the young man said.
In the nearby street of shophouses two rotund middle-aged women become animated and say the real issue for Cambodia is corruption, drugs, prostitution and crime-problems they say they didn’t have to worry about under the Khmer Rouge.
The divided feeling in this neighborhood mirrors somewhat the struggles between the government and the UN to see a Khmer Rouge tribunal established.
Almost five years after efforts to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice sputtered to life, the world body and Phnom Penh are still no closer to an agreement on how it should be done.
The UN abandoned trial talks in February saying-in as many words-that it did not trust the government’s commitment to hold a credible trial.
Assuming the moral high ground, Phnom Penh charged the UN with again denying Cambodia justice. But some observers claim that many officials in the government are historically tied by one-time membership in the Khmer Rouge and do not want a deep analysis of the past.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said last month he would resume talks with Cambodia if he won a mandate from the UN General Assembly or the Security Council.
Thousands of ordinary Cambodians were also one-time soldiers and supporters of the Khmer Rouge and may fear excavations of the past.
Sieng Sikhouen, once a private secretary to Ieng Sary at the Democratic Kampuchea foreign ministry, warned earlier this year that holding a trial would be like lifting the lid off a psychological tinderbox.
Once the outpouring of repressed anger and fear-pent up since the Khmer Rouge regime-began, it would not stop, he said.
But with the current glacial pace of tribunal talks, many observers believe that few of the former leaders and key atrocity suspects will be alive to ever stand in the hallowed halls of justice.
But at least for 67-year-old Say Ung, that will bring its own justice.
Staring up at the imposing villa at the end of the street, Say Ung pronounces that a Khmer Rouge tribunal is irrelevant.
“If he killed many people, God will bring him to trial,” said Say Ung, a Christian convert.
“But if he believes in God, God can save his soul. If he does not believe, he will be thrown into a lake of fire and his soul will be encased in steel,” Say Ung said.
“[Ieng Sary] still has a chance,” he said.
© 2002 – 2013, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.