Cambodia: Ieng Sary and the End of an Inhuman Era

27 Mar, 2013    ·   3858

Prof V. Suryanarayan discusses the implications of the death of one of the founding fathers of the Khmer Rouge

The death of Ieng Sary (24 October 1925 – 14 March 2013), one of the founding fathers of the Khmer Rouge, brings to an end an inhuman chapter in the history of modern Cambodia. When the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1978, Ieng Sary was the Deputy Prime Minister. He was also the Minister for Foreign Affairs, represented his country at the UN, and held negotiations with major powers.

The crimes committed by the Pol Pot - Ieng Sary - Khieu Samphan trio, who headed the Khmer Rouge Government, which came to power after the defeat of the US backed Lon Nol Government, are well known. Ieng Sary was very close to the Chinese leadership, who were the major patrons of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge wanted to transform Cambodia into a pure socialist state and abolished money, private property, and Buddhist religion. Cities were emptied, intellectuals and the literati were sent to rural areas to do manual work. In an interview with William Shawcross, Sihanouk said in 1977, “I lost two sons, two daughters and ten grand children. I do not know whether they are dead, wounded or alive. I do not know what was happening in my country”. To quote Sihanouk again, “In 1969, there were seven million Khmers. In 1979, there are less than four million Khmers in Cambodia. According to UN estimates, in 1980, at least two million Khmers will die of famine, disease and also because of war”.

The period witnessed cynicism and opportunism at its worst as far as the major international players were concerned. Principles and ideology completely disappeared as motivating factors in the conduct of diplomacy. The US originally intervened in the Vietnam War to contain Chinese expansionism. However, US hostility towards Vietnam was far more intense because Hanoi had militarily defeated the US. Equally relevant is the amazing duplicity in the conduct of China’s foreign policy. Beijing found convergence of interests with Washington and played the balance of power game to the hilt in Indo-China. It is necessary to remind ourselves that Beijing undertook the punitive expedition against Vietnam in early 1979 with the moral support and diplomatic backing of the US. When Hanoi realised that Cambodia, backed by China, was a threat to its security, it intervened in Cambodia and installed its puppet Heng Samrin in power. The member states of the ASEAN added fuel to the fire by providing legitimacy to the Pol Pot regime at the US. No one cared for the people of Cambodia, who became innocent victims in the inter-related domestic and foreign policies of their country.

Ieng Sary, known as Kim Trang, was born on 24 October 1925 in South Vietnam. He was a bright student, was awarded a scholarship, and along with few others of his kind, went to France for higher studies. He came under the spell of Marxism-Leninism and, along with his colleagues, took the initiative in founding the Communist Party of Cambodia. On his return, he served as a schoolteacher while carrying on clandestine activities against the government led by Sihanouk. In France, he came in touch with another student, Saloth Sar, who later came to be known as Pol Pot. They cemented their friendship by marrying two sisters, Khieu Thirith and Khieu Ponnary. During the Indo-China wars, the Khmer Rouge made common cause with North Vietnam and China. It must, however, be pointed out that Ieng Sary was more influenced by Chinese communist leaders; he was inspired by the ideology and tactics of the Gang of Four, which played a prominent role during the Cultural Revolution.

When Heng Samrin came to power in Phnom Penh, a bare footed Ieng Sary trekked over a long distance, and entered Thailand, where officials from the Chinese Embassy received him. They took him to Beijing via Bangkok, and extended material and moral support to the Khmer Rouge. The rest is history.

In 1996, Ieng Sary defected from the Khmer Rouge along with his faithful followers. He was given royal amnesty, and led a comfortable life with the enormous wealth that he had accumulated by indulging in a lucrative timber trade and the sale of rubies. In 2007, Ieng Sary and his wife were arrested and put on trial before the UN-backed Tribunal, the Extra-Ordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).  Ieng Sary pleaded that he was innocent, transferring all the blame on Pol Pot. Ieng Sary’s death has struck a severe blow to the functioning of the ECCC.

From an Indian point of view, it must be highlighted that there is a pressing moral and legal need for judicial acknowledgement of the crimes against humanity committed during recent years - whether in Cambodia under Pol Pot, or in Sri Lanka during the last stages of the Fourth Eelam War. Will this moral judgement be pronounced? Only time can provide an answer.