BANTEAY MEANCHEY PROVINCE - In the yard of a small wooden house in remote Banteay Meanchey province, the body of Khmer Rouge co-founder Ieng Sary lies in state, surrounded by wreaths and awaiting cremation. Visitors to the site all wore white, where former soldiers of the regime are indistinguishable from the “new people.”
They came in small groups to pay their respects, following his death March 14 in Phnom Penh, were he was on trial for atrocity crimes. His body will be cremated about 100 kilometers from Pailin town, where in 1996 Ieng Sary led a major Khmer Rouge defection that helped end decades of civil war.
Here in Dong village, Malai province, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold, Ieng Sary was remembered as a hero and a nationalist, a far different picture than he will be remembered historically, as a man who helped the Khmer Rouge rise to brutal power and under whose partial leadership some 1.7 million people died from overwork, starvation or execution.
“We still have the old memory when he led us, the time when we were under his leadership,” said Sok Pheap, a former Khmer Rouge commander in this mountainous region, where Ieng Sary’s body was returned. “Now that he has passed away, we have our sympathy toward him as usual.”
Yim Phanna, another former commander, said Ieng Sary had earned some merit by helping put an end to the war.
At his family’s home in Dong village, many have come to pay their respects, his son, Ieng Vuth, who is the governor of nearby Pailin, said. “It’s only quiet today,” he told VOA Khmer. “Yesterday there were many people.”
A photo of the man who helped Pol Pot form the Khmer Rouge lay by his body, 400 kilometers from where Ieng Sary was on trial at the time of his death. Phy Phoun, a villager here who was a witness on his behalf at the court, called Ieng Sary a “nationalist, who loved the populace.”
In a nearby market, one that came only after peace in 1996, a man carrying a jug of water said, “He is luckier than Pol Pot, because he can be cremated.”
Pol Pot, and now Ieng Sary, both died before they were tried for the grave crimes of Khmer Rouge cadre under their command. At the UN-backed court in Phnom Penh, the regime’s chief ideologue, Nuon Chea, and its former head of state, Khieu Samphan, are still in detention and still on trial. Both men are aging, and victims and court observers fear they too will not see the end of their atrocity crimes trial.
“The death of Ieng Sary really shows that there has to be a need for an expeditious and comprehensive judicial process,” US Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh told VOA Khmer. “Either way, we have full confidence that judicial officials will deliver justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge.”
Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said Ieng Sary’s death was regrettable. “His loss is a message to all of us, not only the government of Cambodia, but partners for the tribunal, especially the UN, that we are running against time,” he said. “This is the time of their old age.”