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Khmer Rouge Co-Founder Cremated in Former Regime Redoubt

Former Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, center, Ieng Sary's wife, cries during the cremation ceremony of his husband at his home of a former stronghold of Malai, 420 kilometers (260 miles) from Cambodian-Thai border, northwestern of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, March 21, 2013. Ieng Sary, who co-founded the communist Khmer Rouge regime responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians in the 1970s, and who decades later became one of its few leaders to be put on trial, died on March 14 before his case could be finished. He was 87. (AP Photo)
BANTEAY MEANCHEY Province - The body of former Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary was cremated Thursday at a ceremony in his home village in a former Khmer Rouge stronghold.

Columns of black smoke rose from the crematorium built in front of his small home in Dong village, Malai district, Banteay Meanchey province, as more than 1,000 people stood in attendance, most of them former Khmer Rouge cadre.

The former foreign minister of the Khmer Rouge was facing an atrocity crimes trial when he died at age 87, in a Phnom Penh hospital on March 14.

His children, including Ieng Vuth, deputy governor of Pailin, and other relatives also attended the ceremony.

His daughter, Hun Vanny, read a eulogy for her deceased father.

“Father, you are not gone from us,” she said. “Because your kindness remains with all the children, providing us warmth in our every breath. You will remain forever in our hearts.”

Ieng Sary’s wife and former Khmer Rouge social affairs minister Ieng Thirith was also present, at the home Ieng Sary had built in 1990. She arrived only a few hours before the cremation and was carried by family members, dressed in white and appearing somber as she sat at the right-hand side of the coffin before it was put in the pyre. Her tears were wiped away by relatives nearby. She wept but did not cry out loud, apparently aware that her husband had died.

Ieng Thirith, 81, was released late last year by the UN-backed tribunal, found mentally unfit to stand trial for atrocity crimes alongside her husband and two other aging leaders, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, who remain in detention and on trial.

Ieng Sary helped found the movement alongside Pol Pot and was accused of grave crimes, including genocide, at the tribunal. His death before the completion of the trial has fueled concerns that court will not be able to complete its work.

Relatives and children paid their respects to the coffin for the last time, prior to the 6:30 pm cremation. Ieng Thirith, who normally called her husband “Pa,” said he was “now dead.”

Pailin Governor Y Chhean, a former bodyguard for Pol Pot, presided over the cremation and lit the torch for the ceremony. He told reporters that he was attending the funeral to share in the grieving for Ieng Sary.

“Life is not eternal,” Prum Sou, a former Khmer Rouge commander and adviser to the Ministry of Defense, said. “Ieng Sary did so much that I cannot recount it, but he was my leader.”

Eighty-nine monks from 49 temples, including from nearby Pailin, Battambang province and from across the Thai border, attended the ceremony, along with Ieng Sary’s defense team from the tribunal.

“I attended his cremation as an act of humanity, as family, and in the interest of other Buddhists,” said Ang Udom, Ieng Sary’s defense attorney at the tribunal, who declined to speak about the case Thursday. “What is in the past depends on what is in the documents. We cannot say anything about it. What we were working on with him is still confidential as our work, even though the case is now over.”

Michael Karnavas, Ieng Sary’s international defense lawyer, said the Khmer Rouge tribunal should not have brought him to trial, as he had already received a royal pardon in 1996 in exchange for his surrender to the government—a claim judges at the UN-backed court invalidated ahead of Ieng Sary’s trial.

Nhem En, former photographer at the Khmer Rouge torture center of Tuol Sleng, said the regime was indescribable.

“Usually those in power must have some responsibility,” he said. “Therefore, there must have been some mistakes for the nation and the people.”