Mourners gathered yesterday in Pailin to pay their final respects to former Khmer Rouge tribunal defendant Ieng Thirith, an accused genocidaire still regarded as a hero by many in this former Khmer Rouge stronghold on the Thai border.
Thirith, who died on Saturday after a long period of poor health, is scheduled to be cremated today.
And despite the fact that religion was effectively banned under the Khmer Rouge regime – for which Thirith served as minister of social affairs – the 83-year-old enjoyed the trappings of a traditional Buddhist funeral, held at a Pailin villa.
Huon Vany, Thirith’s 60-year-old daughter, said yesterday that her mother – who had advanced dementia – had been bedridden for more than a year.
“My feeling is the same as the feelings of many other Cambodian people when their parent passes away,” she said.
“I regret the loss. We are children who have taken care of her from the bottom of our heart as she stayed in bed for over a year. Now she’s gone, even though we worked hard to keep her alive.”
Despite Thirith’s having been by the tribunal with crimes against humanity and genocide during her time as an official for a regime under which some 1.6 million people died, Vany insisted yesterday that her mother had been a good person, and had raised her children to lead virtuous, peaceful lives.
“She gave birth to me; she gave me good advice and an education to be a good person up until today,” said Vany.
A 55-year-old former Khmer Rouge cadre who attended yesterday’s ceremony, and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he knew Thirith from 1976 until the Khmer Rouge’s overthrow in 1979, and thought of her as a second mother.
“I regret and am sad about her loss, because she exhausted herself for the nation and served the people.
Since I was young, I have never seen her commit crimes,” he said. “She has never killed people, and she fed me like her own children.
Therefore, I came for her funeral today to pay my last respects to her.”
According to the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s indictment in Case 002, Thirith was born the youngest child of a judge in Phnom Penh on March 10, 1932.
After graduating from the Lycee Sisowath – where she met her future husband and co-defendant Ieng Sary – Thirith travelled to Paris, where she earned a degree in Shakespeare studies from the Sorbonne.
After a stint teaching upon her return, she “entirely devot[ed] herself to her revolutionary activities from 1965 onwards”, leaving her children in the care of their grandparents for years.
Though she was not a member of the regime’s central or standing committees, as the Khmer Rouge’s minister of social affairs – or social action, as the position was also known – Thirith oversaw hospitals and the production of medicine.
Thousands died of illness under the regime due to a lack of medical care.
The historian Ben Kiernan, in his book The Pol Pot Regime, described the experience of visiting a Vietnamese women’s delegation, which Thirith took to a pharmaceutical production factory staffed and overseen by mostly illiterate teenagers.
When a lengthy argument about technical expertise broke out, Thirith interjected, saying the workers were using a Cambodian “formula” developed during the struggle against foreign imperialists, namely the French and Americans.
“It was not a happy visit,” the delegate recalled. “They hated us and thought we were inquisitive.”
During her time in the regime, Thirith toured the Northwest Zone, where conditions were particularly bad – a situation she blamed on “agents” infiltrating the regime, rather than the Khmer Rouge’s decision to forcibly import some 800,000 people into the region.
Given her visit, Thirith was likely aware of the widespread starvation there, John Ciociari and Anne Heindel wrote in their book Hybrid Justice.
“She is also alleged to have either encouraged or failed to prevent the arrest and execution of ministry staff,” the authors write.
“She denied this during a pretrial hearing and placed all blame on Nuon Chea.”
According to the tribunal’s indictment, through her role on the regime’s Council of Ministers, Thirith was involved in the planning of the regime’s system of notoriously brutal worksites and cooperatives, and voiced her “total agreement” with the policy of eradicating so-called “internal enemies” of the regime.
Thirith was also accused of complicity of East Zone purges.
Thirith was arrested in 2007, and Ciorciari and Heindel note in their book that Thirith’s dementia “may have been exacerbated by her four years of pretrial detention”.
Proceedings against her were ultimately severed in 2012 when it was determined that she was unfit to stand trial.
Her husband and co-defendant, Sary, died in custody the following year.
Un Bunly – the deputy chief of administration at Pailin Municipal Hall, and a close family friend who organised the funeral arrangements – maintained that Thirith’s eventual release from prosecution was a measure of “justice”.
“We respected her as a leader among the other former Khmer Rouge . . . Whatever the other people say about her crimes during the Khmer Rouge regime, I don’t care.”