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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Khieu Ponnary, 1920-2003

Khieu Ponnary, 1920-2003


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.



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