How a Brutal Khmer Rouge Leader Died 'Not Guilty'

A verdict was never reached in Ieng Sary's human rights abuses case. His story reveals the limitations of international tribunals.

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Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary is assisted during his pre-trial hearing at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in the outskirts of Phnom Penh on June 30, 2008. (Reuters)

MALAI, Cambodia-- It was the sort of send-off his own regime would never have permitted: an elaborate Buddhist funeral that ended with prayers, reminiscences, and the crackle of fireworks in an inky night sky. Ieng Sary, one of the last surviving leaders of Cambodia's murderous Khmer Rouge regime, died of a heart attack on March 14, at the age of 87. For a week afterward, hundreds of white-clad mourners turned out in this former communist stronghold to pay their last respects to a man they remembered as a comrade and patriot--a man who thought only of his nation.

To everyone else, Ieng Sary enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only person to be tried for genocide on two occasions: first in 1979, shortly after the Khmer Rouge fell from power, and then more recently at a UN-backed tribunal in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. By dying in the dock, he escaped justice for his role in the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Led by "Brother Number One" Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge conducted a hellish communist experiment--a "super great leap forward" that killed an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians and sowed a green land with hundreds of mass graves.

But that's not how Sary is remembered in this forgotten corner of the country, a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge until the mid-1990s. On the day of his funeral, monks chanted as wartime comrades and sun-cured farmers arrived at Sary's country villa to pay their respects. Wreaths of flowers surrounded his gold casket, which sat alongside a jasmine-fringed photo of the former leader. Later the casket was moved into an elaborate two-story crematorium festooned with blinking lights. During a 10-minute eulogy, Sary's daughter Hun Vanny made just one reference to his involvement with the Khmer Rouge, a period when "he sacrificed his life by leaving his wife and family, moving from place to place."

"Cambodians talk about the purity of water, purity of gold, purity of silver," she said of her father. "None of these can compare with the purity of heart."

Also paying a final farewell was Sary's frail widow and fellow defendant Ieng Thirith, who was led to the base of crematorium before being bungled into a van and driven away. Thirith served as the Social Affairs Minister under the Khmer Rouge and was also on trial until her release in September, when the court ruled she was unfit to stand trial due to dementia. As Sary's body burned and fireworks flowered overhead, old comrades reminisced about a boss who fought to free his country from foreign domination. "Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan and Pol Pot were not communist people--they were liberators," said 58-year-old Chan Sary, a former Khmer Rouge soldier who lost a leg to a landmine in 1990. "At the top they didn't know the hardships," he added, leaning on his crutch.

This is not the story historians usually tell. When the Khmer Rouge took power in April 1975, toppling a U.S.-backed republic, they treated Cambodia's people as an expendable raw material with which they planned to forge a rural utopia of unsurpassed purity, an agrarian dream-state whose name would "be written in golden letters in world history." Money was abolished, the cities were emptied, and the entire population put to work on vast rural communes. Sary was one of the six members of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK)--the nerve-center of the regime. Appointed foreign minister of "Democratic Kampuchea" -- as the new regime euphemized itself -- Sary issued calls for sympathetic Cambodian intellectuals to return to reconstruct a land destroyed by five years of civil war. Of the 1,000 or so who returned, most were jailed, executed, or perished from starvation or disease.

Many years later Sary would deny any involvement in Khmer Rouge atrocities, but experts have little doubt there was enough evidence to convict him. In 2001, Steve Heder, a leading historian of the period, concluded in a paper co-authored with the legal scholar Brian D. Tittemore that arrest and execution orders routinely crossed Ieng Sary's desk. They concluded there was "significant evidence of Ieng Sary's individual responsibility for CPK crimes, for repeatedly and publicly encouraging arrests and executions within his Foreign Ministry and throughout Democratic Kampuchea."

Ieng Sary was the most slippery of the Khmer Rouge leaders--a master dissimulator who easily shed old revolutionary convictions and adopted new guises. He was "a devious manipulative man, crafty rather than clever," wrote Philip Short in his book Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare. "He concealed insincerity beneath a calculated ability to make himself agreeable." Unlike his austere comrades, Sary was also a revolutionary with a taste for the finer things, such as lobster thermidor, cognac, and French perfume, which he enjoyed during years of starvation and civil war. "When he dropped his normally radiant smile, [it was clear] how dark and harsh his face could become,"wrote James Pringle, a former Reuters correspondent who first met Sary in China in 1971. "I would hate to have faced him across an interrogation table."

After the Khmer Rouge was overthrown by a Vietnamese invasion in January 1979, Sary and his colleagues fled to the Thai border, where they re-established themselves in jungle bases and, with Chinese and Western support, waged war on the new Vietnam-backed government that had replaced them. Sary, now in charge of the movement's finances, installed himself in Pailin, a dusty boomtown surrounded by rich gem and timber deposits. By the 1990s he had grown rich -- much richer than his austere revolutionary colleagues. Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, the two remaining defendants at Cambodia's war crimes court, did not profit from their careers. Pol Pot died, defeated and penniless, in 1998.

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Sebastian Strangio is an Australian journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His reporting from across Asia has appeared in Slate, Foreign Policy, The Economist, and other publications.

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