The death of former Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary last week closes definitively a window for justice in Cambodia. The verdict is delivered then by history. It does, however, represent the loss of a witness that could give valuable information on what was behind the thoughts and actions of the Kampuchea Democratic system. The death of Sary can be compared with the death in impunity of Saloth Sar (alias Pol Pot) on April 15, 1998. The only attempt at justice in Pol Pot’s case was a doubtful tribunal in the jungle led by Khmer Rouge guerrillas looking to gain favour in the new Cambodia.
The huge figure of Pol Pot seems to overshadow his powerful team. Pot Pot is compared to Hitler as the leader of a massive crusade against the people he considered an inconvenient to a nationalist ideal, the building of the Democratic Kampuchea with new people, new history, new hopes. But there are also comparisons to Stalin with his deep revolution, or a Mao Zedong with the jump to a total cultural revolution. Pot Pot seems to carry on his shoulders the whole responsibility of the Cambodian revolution that brought the disappearance of more than 1.7 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.
However, placing sole responsibility for the atrocities on Pol Pot is a mistake. The Khmer Rouge leadership was very much a team. It was comprised of a rigid pyramidal structure with a strong group of magnetic personalities at the top. These personalities included Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Hu Nim, Hou Yuon, Son Sen, Khieu Thirith, Khieu Ponnary and, of course, Saloth Sar. As Craig Etcheson says:
They were dominant among the people who created and controlled the myriad organizational entities over the stretch of the five stages in the rise and fall of Democratic Kampuchea.
The leading team was bound at the same time by blood linkage, a curiosity if we compare it with the high control over family relations in Cambodia during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. This included forced marriages for procreation alone, and dividing the families as a strategy to control the feelings of Cambodians.
Ieng Sary married Ieng Thirith, whose original name was Khieu Thirith. She is the sister of Khieuu Ponnary, who is the first wife of Pol Pot. As she went insane, Pol Pot abandoned her and she died at the house of her sister Ieng Thirith in 2003. Thirith took the surname of her husband, Ieng Sary, against the Cambodian naming traditions. The former minister of social action is included also in the list of the most senior Kampuchea Democratic leaders to be prosecuted by the ECCC for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide, but the tribunal dismissed her due to mental problems.