The legacy of Ieng Thirith: The ‘First Lady’ of the Khmer Rouge
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The legacy of Ieng Thirith: The ‘First Lady’ of the Khmer Rouge

By Alexandra Demetrianova

Silently and out of the spotlight, Ieng Thirith passed away in Pailin province in Cambodia at the weekend. She was 83 – an age most people of the Khmer Rouge era never had a chance to reach.

Ieng Thirith was the ‘First Lady’ of the bloody regime, which exterminated roughly a quarter of the population during four years of paranoid and self-destructive rule. And yet the former Minister of Social Affairs was never prosecuted, having been exempt from the UN-mediated Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia because of her age and serious health conditions. Only a few from Ieng Thirith’s circle would really know how aware she was of what was going on at the tribunal in the years prior to her death. She suffered progressive dementia and had been hospitalized in Thailand several times after series of strokes. While her death doesn’t come as a surprise, it leaves a deep scar on Cambodia and its people.

“Ieng Thirith has passed away, but the crimes she has directly involved in are still with us. It is the truth. Her death is a victory of evil and a losing battle of God,“ Mr. Youk Chhang, director of Documentation Center of Cambodia, told Asian Correspondent.

Genocide and crimes against humanity

As a Minister of Social Affairs, Ieng Thirith had been one of the top leaders of Angkar – the political organization of the Khmer Rouge, which  transformed Cambodia into an agrarian society living under a “revolution of the proletariat”. Angkar erased two thousand years of Cambodian history, forcibly moved people from cities to the countryside, destroyed religion, marriage, family life and finally began cleansing of traitors in the party as well as society. The genocide by the Khmer Rouge of its own people became one of the most serious crimes against humanity of the 20th century.

The tribunal of former leaders of the Khmer Rouge indicted Ieng Thirith in 2010 “on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949”. There were enough evidence and witnesses to accuse her of direct participation in planning and instigating murder, torture, persecution, genocide and killing of the Vietnamese community. But in 2012 she was released after she was declared “unfit” for trial due to dementia.

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Ieng Thirith pictured in Pailin in 1999. Image: Documentation Center of Cambodia Archive.

“We must continue to educate our children about what happened and document crimes that continue to harm our society. The crimes of genocide do not stop at a tribunal,” said Youk Chhang.

Ieng Thirith was born in 1932. She graduated from Lycée Sisowath in Phnom Penh and then continued her studies in Paris – similar to other revolutionaries. Having majored in Shakespeare at the Sorbonne, she became the first Cambodian ever to receive a degree in English literature. When she returned to Cambodia in 1957, she worked as a professor and then founded a private English school. She joined Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and in 1975 became Minister of Social Affairs in the newly founded Democratic Kampuchea.

Her husband Ieng Sary was one of the co-founders of Khmer Rouge. He served as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the regime as well as deputy prime-minister. He was known as ‘Brother No. 3’. Like his wife, Ieng Sary was supposed to stand trial for his involvement in the genocide, but he died in 2013. Interestingly enough, both of the spouses remained members of the Khmer Rouge long after the bloody regime fell after a full-scale North Vietnamese invasion in 1979. Between 1996 and 1998 the pair had defected from the Khmer Rouge and were granted royal amnesty and pardon. For a decade Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith lived happily and lavishly in Phnom Penh, until they were detained by ECCC in 2007.

Prosecutions and verdicts

Today, everyone in Cambodia is in some way affected by the genocide. The Khmer Rouge killed between 1.4 million and 2.2 million people, turning families and the whole society against each other. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is himself a Khmer Rouge defector to Vietnam and many other representatives, officials,  and also regular people were part of the system of revolutionary society. Of the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge and the masterminds of the genocide, only three people have been prosecuted and verdicts delivered. Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot died long before the ECCC tribunal was established.

In August last year a long awaited and long overdue verdict was delivered by ECCC. Khieu Samphan, regime’s former head of state and Nuon Chea, former deputy secretary of the CPK, were sentenced to life in prison for orchestrating genocide and crimes against humanity.  The verdict was a relief and many were satisfied with life sentences, while others felt bitter, as both leaders now elderly and are in dire health. Many Cambodians wanted the former masterminds of Khmer Rouge genocide to serve their sentences in Tuol Sleng prison, where more than 11, 000 people perished through torture and execution. The director of the infamous S-21, known as “Duch”, was the first Khmer Rouge leader to be sentenced in 2010, to 35 years in prison. All of the defendants denied guilt and knowledge of what was going on under the Khmer Rouge.

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Ieng Thirith, left, meets a foreign women’s delegation during the Democratic Kampuchea regime. Image: Documentation Center of Cambodia Archive.

But to reconcile a society after genocide and a civil conflict of such violent extent, a tribunal is not enough. It is impossible to put everyone who perpetrated violence under a trial. Ideology was forced upon everyone in the former Democratic Kampuchea and many had no choice but to comply. No one dared to stand up to the injustice. The mere understanding of justice had been ultimately twisted by Khmer Rouge. Those who were suspected of being against the regime, or had had even slightly a intellectual or bourgeois background, were mercilessly tortured and exterminated.

And so Ieng Thirith’s death and her previous release from detention and tribunal leave a legacy in Cambodia which goes beyond the ECCC. Youk Chhang , who was involved in collecting evidence and witness accounts for ECCC, says that reconciliation and healing are equally if not more important in Cambodia: “In Buddhism people tend to believe in reincarnation, past and next life. Forgiveness is not the answer. Healing through human perspective works better as most people perceive themselves as victims.”

‘Evil and destructive’

And yet millions of Cambodians hoped the tribunal would bring peace to their hearts and minds. More than that, the work of the ECCC, established between 1997 and 2007, was a strong foundation for justice and national reconciliation, says Mr. Youk Chhang: “People look at the Khmer Rouge as a point zero, because they were so evil and destructive. Like nothing was before that, we can’t pass through it. Unless we face it, deal with it, we can’t restore our identity and move on.”

Many people still have a hard time accepting that a ‘Khmer could kill a Khmer’. Being an ancient Buddhist civilization, Cambodians perceive themselves as gentle, soft and peaceful. To accept the consequences of the Khmer Rouge’s actions -violence and cruelty towards their own people – will take at least a generation or two.

“Some people think the Khmer Rouge is history, but it’s not. Its impact is still around and present. We are a broken nation and our pieces need to be gently glued together, restored,” says Youk Chhang, stressing that this cannot be done by more violence and guilt-spreading, but rather with education and acceptance.

About the author:

Alexandra Demetrianova is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok covering politics, society and life in Southeast Asia. She specializes in human rights, environment and development. Originally from Slovakia, she is currently finishing a Masters degree in International Relations at the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University.