The Death of Ieng Sary, Cambodia's "Murderous Thug"
The Death of Ieng Sary, Cambodia's "Murderous Thug"
By Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- In November 1975, seven months after Pol Pot seized Cambodia, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked Thailand's representatives about Pol Pot's brother-in-law, Ieng Sary.
Thailand's Chatichai Choonhavan had recently met Ieng Sary in Bangkok.
"Did Ieng Sary impress you?" Mr. Kissinger asked.
"He is a nice, quiet man," replied Mr. Chatichai who was then foreign minister.
"How many people did he kill? Tens of thousands?" Mr. Kissinger responded.
"Nice and quietly!" exclaimed the State Department's then-Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Philip Habib.
"Not more than 10,000," said Mr. Chatichai, who later became Thailand's prime minister.
"That's why they need food. If they had killed everyone, they would not need salt and fish. All the bridges in Cambodia were destroyed. There was no transportation, no gas. That's why they had to chase people away from the capital," Mr. Chatichai told the Americans.
"But why with only two hours' notice?" Mr. Kissinger asked referring to the immediate, forced evacuation of all Cambodian cities in April 1975.
Mr. Chatichai then silently "shrugs," according to the transcript of a previously "secret" State Department "Memorandum of Conversation" quoting their "informal lunch" in Washington.
The transcript was made available by Washington-based George Washington University. (http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB193/HAK-11-26-75.pdf)
"You should also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them," Mr. Kissinger said at the end of the lunch.
"They are murderous thugs, but we won't let that stand in our way. We are prepared to improve relations with them. Tell them the latter part, but don't tell them what I said before," Mr. Kissinger said.
But the Khmer Rouge lost power in January 1979 when Vietnam unleashed an invasion, chasing Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and other top officials into jungle camps.
Vietnam spent 10 years occupying the country before withdrawing, partly because of intense U.S.-backed pressure.
Ieng Sary died on March 14 after refusing to testify at his trial for genocide and other war crimes, marking the United Nations-backed tribunal's second failure to bring justice to five former top Khmer Rouge officials.
The Khmer Rouge are held responsible for killing 1.7 million Cambodians by executions, torture, slavery and other official policies during their 1975-1979 back-to-the-jungle dictatorship, which also allowed starvation and disease to ravish the Southeast Asian nation.
"I knew Ieng Sary quite well, and met and dined and interviewed him numerous times over the years," U.S.-based journalist and author Nate Thayer wrote on his Facebook page shortly after Ieng Sary's death was announced.
"I even slept in his house a couple times. He was guilty as sin of being a mass murderer," said Mr. Thayer, who also interviewed Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot in a Cambodian jungle just before Pol Pot died in 1998.
Ieng Sary's "indictment for those crimes came 30 years after he committed them, which was followed by being funded, armed, and diplomatically supported by the world community, then pardoned for all crimes by King [Norodom] Sihanouk, and then appointed to a senior government position by the current dictator, Hun Sen, who served Mr. Sary loyally as an officer in his army, when he [Ieng Sary] was said to do what he did," Mr. Thayer said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen was a Khmer Rouge regiment commander during the guerrilla war that enabled Pol Pot to seize power in 1975.
In 1977, Hun Sen fled to Vietnam, apparently fearing deadly purges among the Khmer Rouge, while Ieng Sary remained loyal to Pol Pot.
Ieng Sary was sometimes described as Pol Pot's "Brother Number Three," as third in command.
Ieng Sary was born on October 24, 1925 in an area now in southern Vietnam, which may have helped prompt the Khmer Rouge's failed claims on Vietnam's territory.
Ieng Sary's mother was a Chinese immigrant, and his father was ethnic Khmer Krom, but that did not stop Ieng Sary and Pol Pot from persecuting the Khmer Krom minority during their regime.
Along with other future Khmer Rouge leaders, Ieng Sary studied in France's Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris during the early 1950s, and helped create a Marxist Circle of Khmer Students.
Ieng Sary co-founded the Khmer Rouge when they began as insurgents led by Pol Pot.
After teaching history and geography in Cambodia, he and other Khmer Rouge hid in neighboring Vietnam during the early 1970s, when the U.S. war against Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos peaked before America lost and retreated from all three nations.
Ieng Sary, 87, "died at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital this morning after having been hospitalized since March 4, 2013," the U.N.-backed Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) tribunal announced "with regret" on March 14.
"The co-prosecutors will determine the cause of death," the ECCC said.
"He was arrested on November 12, 2007 and was on trial before the ECCC on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions," it said.
Ieng Sary refused to testify.
The ECCC tribunal was established to determine the guilt of five former top Khmer Rouge officials.
They include foreign minister Ieng Sary, Ieng Sary's wife Ieng Thirith, Kaing Guek Eav who is also known as Duch, head of state Khieu Samphan, and ideologue Nuon Chea.
Today, only Nuon Chea -- who was Pol Pot's "Brother Number Two" in rank -- and Khieu Samphan await trial.
The ECCC allowed Ieng Sary's once-powerful wife, Ieng Sarith, to be excused in 2012 because she appeared demented.
She was social affairs minister during Pol Pot's reign and is currently receiving medical care.
Kaing Guek Eav was the only official who went through an entire trial.
He was sentenced to life imprisonment for commanding the S-21 Tuol Sleng torture chamber and prison in Phnom Penh, which transported 12,000 to 16,000 people to their executions in nearby "killing fields."
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.
His websites are
(Copyright 2013 Richard S Ehrlich)