Late last week Ieng Sary aka criminal case file 002, former foreign minister for the charnel house known as the Khmer Rouge regime, died in Phnom Penh at the age of eighty seven.
One of five senior members of the Khmer Rouge being investigated by an international tribunal, Sary died denying he had any role in overseeing the death by starvation, torture and murder of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and early 1979.
Unfortunately, he escaped justice, dying before the tribunal could hand down its findings into his case.
Described in the charge sheet as ‘retired’, he lived peacefully in the former guerilla strong hold of Pailin until 2007, when an ageing Soviet-era chopper swooped down and police arrested and bundled him off to Phnom Penh.
For me, the news of the 87-year-old Sary’s death was very much a case of fact and fiction merging. Sary’s defection from the Khmer Rouge in 1996 forms the historical backdrop of my crime novel set in Cambodia, Ghost Money.
Normally, I’d feel dreadful using someone’s death as an excuse to plug my book, but I’ll make an exception in Sary’s case.
I was just about to a stint as a journalist with one of the wire services in Phnom Penh, when news of Sary’s defection from the Khmer Rouge broke.
Unknown to most foreign observers, the Khmer Rouge has been splintering internally for many years. Partly this was the result of the government’s relentless military operations. More decisive were internal tensions over the movement’s direction and how best to divide the spoils from the guerrillas’ logging and gem mining operations along the border with Thailand.
At the time Sary claimed he’d grown sick of fighting and wanted to end the war. A more significant influence were reports Khmer Rouge hardliners under Pol Pot had discovered Sary was skimming the proceeds from gem mining and logging operations, and were about to move against him.
Whatever the case, both sides of Cambodia’s dysfunctional coalition government courted Sary and his not inconsiderable military clout for their own ends. Sary, meanwhile, used his position to stay one step ahead of a prison cell. It was a bizarre, increasingly acrimonious game of cat and mouse that eventually resulted in open warfare between the two coalition partners.
But that’s another story.
Over a decade later, when I was again working in Cambodia as a journalist, I watched Sary sit in the dock of the international criminal tribunal, flanked by security guards.
Sary complained of dizziness and at one point in the proceedings, asked that the hearing into his case be adjourned on the grounds that he had spent his lunch break being examined by a doctor and was hungry. I recall thinking the irony of that statement would not have been lost of the older Cambodians watching the nationally televised proceedings, who would have been able to remember eating rats, spiders, lizards and anything else they could find to ward off starvation under the Khmer Rouge.
Many historians maintain Sary’s membership of the Communist Party’s Central Committee leaves little doubt of his involvement in Khmer Rouge decision-making processes. He was also responsible for sending Cambodian diplomats and students returning from abroad after the war to Tuol Sleng, Pol Pot’s infamous torture chamber.
Sary’s wife, Ieng Thirith, was also charged with war crimes for her role in the murder of hundreds of her staff while she was the regime’s Minister of Social Action. Thirith, whose fearsome demeanour could be described as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest with Maoist characteristics, also maintained her innocence.
Her lawyer at the time I was covering the tribunal, argued she was mentally unstable and many believed she would try and cop an insanity plea to get out the proceedings. They were close. She was eventually diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and discharged on the grounds of diminished responsibility.
Kaing Guek Eav aka Duch, the former head of Tuol Sleng, was found guilty in 2010. That leaves Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s right hand man, and Khieu Samphan, another powerful official in the Khmer Rouge, left to stand trial. Both of them are old and in all likelihood may not survive to be hear the tribunal’s verdict.
I found it a genuinely moving experience to watch Sary sit in court with only protective glass separating him from hundreds of ordinary Cambodians, farmers, students, monks, many of them victims of his regime.
Despite all the problems with the tribunal, it’s rare for ordinary Cambodians to see the powerful held accountable for crimes they have committed. If it does nothing else, hopefully the tribunal has given them a taste for it.
Ghost Money is a hard-boiled crime story set in the nineties, when Cambodia was a broken country, still trying to recover from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. If there is one thing everyone who has reviewed it agrees on, it’s a vivid evocation of that period of time in the country’s history. If you’re interested in Cambodia and this period of history, you can purchase it for your Kindle here. It is also available in generic e-pub format and I am currently working with the publisher, Snubnose Press, for a hard copy to be released. Hopefully, this will be available in the next few weeks.
Photograph courtesy of the ECCC.