Khieu Ponnary, left, Nuon Chea (front left) and Pol Pot (right).
n 1951, a young woman from an elite family was on her way to study in Paris. The
first Cambodian woman to earn a baccalauréat, Khieu Ponnary looked set to
do great things for her country.
Instead she married Pol Pot and became involved with one of the most brutal regimes
of the 20th Century. A life of war and madness was to follow, ending with her death
in Pailin on July 1.
Ponnary was born into a well-to-do Battambang family. Her father was a judge, but
was said to have ran off with a Cambodian princess during the Second World War. Her
mother raised the family on her own, which may be where the first seeds of Ponnary's
feminist principles were sown.
After gaining her baccalauréat from Phnom Penh's Lycée Sisowath, Ponnary
left for France with her younger sister Khieu Thirith, where they were to study at
the École Normal Supérieure. There she met Saloth Sar, as Pol Pot was
known at the time, who was studying electronics.
The connection between the two was Ieng Sary, who became one of the most powerful
Khmer Rouge leaders. At the time he was a close friend and intellectual sparring
partner for Pol Pot, and was engaged to Ponnary's sister.
In 1956, she married Pol Pot, who was seven years her junior. It was around then
she began her political career. She was a known feminist, well respected for her
intellect, and aired her views in Neary, a monthly women's magazine she published.
Ponnary continued to teach at Lycée Sisowath.
In the mid-1960s, the sisters joined their husbands in the maquis, where they had
been developing the ideology that was later to cause the deaths of at least 1.7 million
Cambodians. Ponnary became the head of party's women's arm, and in the 1970s worked
with the party in the north, northeast and northwest zones.
After the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in 1975, she was appointed president of the
Association of Democratic Women of Kampuchea. But by then, signs of mental illness
were showing. She rarely appeared in public, and her condition reportedly deteriorated
after the regime was overthrown in 1979. She spent much of the 1980s being treated
in Beijing. Despite treatment, she suffered from bouts of mental illness for the
rest of her life. Pol Pot remarried in 1985.
Ponnary lived with Thirith and Ieng Sary, who was pardoned by the government in 1996
but who is now one of the key candidates for the UN-sponsored Khmer Rouge tribunal.
She spent her last years between Ieng Sary's homes in Phnom Penh and Pailin, where
she died. She had no children.