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Mourning a war-crimes suspect

Malai, Banteay Meanchey
Here in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Malai, the death of Ieng Sary has led to little of the soul-searching that has gripped the country. The calls for retribution are heard nowhere, the hand-wringing over justice denied seemingly non-existent.

It is not a man who oversaw the deaths of two million who has died, at least not here in Malai. Instead, for the hundreds who have poured into this dusty border town to pay their respects, what they have witnessed is the passing of nothing less than one of the nation’s greatest leaders.

 “He is a kind of person who sacrificed himself and his life for the nation and the people,” said Phy Phoun, 66. Speaking at Ieng Sary’s house during the week-long funeral that began Thursday night and will culminate in his cremation on March 21, the former Ministry of Foreign Affairs official had come to lay eyes on his former boss one last time.

“The memory for the people here remains focused on the time we were with him,” said Phoun, a former deputy Malai district governor who was appointed in 1997, a year after Ieng Sary took over the region.

Like many of Ieng Sary’s followers, that year represented a turning point after the Khmer Rouge foreign minister received a royal amnesty and was granted de facto control of neighbouring Pailin province as well as Malai as part of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s win-win policy. Thousands of supporters put down their arms against the government, ostensibly trading their Khmer Rouge affiliation for an amnesty that then permitted them to remain under the rule of former Khmer Rouge leaders.  

Sitting outside the large wooden home located just a few hundred metres from the Thai border, Phoun – like others who have spilled into this house during the past few days – described Ieng Sary in the type of glowing terms usually reserved for the saintly.

“He loved his people. He wanted to have a society in which people were not oppressed. This was Ieng Sary’s vision, and this is what he spread to his subordinates at the time,” said Phoun, who had been a follower of Ieng Sary since 1967.

Nearby, another supporter seconded the opinion.

“The war would still be continued as of today if he did not join with the government,” said the man, a former high-ranking Khmer Rouge official who did not wish to give his name due to his current affiliations. “We support him and follow him, because we didn’t want anymore fighting between Khmer and Khmer people.”

“It is a great achievement he has given people here,” echoed Hem Yet, 57, a farmer from Malai whose husband served as a cadre under Ieng Sary.

Sitting on her 50-hectare farm surrounded by workers and partially harvested cassava fields, Yet enumerated the changes that had been made following Ieng Sary’s 11-year amnesty.  

“During the fighting, Malai was a jungle – full of cobras and tigers. Many got sick and died from malaria,” she said.  “Now we are in peace and have development. It’s a complete difference and it’s a great achievement he has given the people here.”

Indeed, this town has ballooned since its integration in 1996. Once the epicentre of fighting that raged throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the district is now home to more than 40,000 people – a fourfold increase over the past decade and a half.   

At the bustling market, just one of the infrastructure projects popularly cited by residents here as proof positive of Ieng Sary’s success, vendors spoke of a man who changed their lives only for the better.

Thirty-four years after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power and 18 years after the regime formally disbanded and fighting ceased, Sou Yan, 48, continues to live in disbelief.

“I never expected to be sitting here, selling stuff to people. I used to carry a gun and fight. I moved around always, I was separated from my family,” said the one-time child soldier who today works as an electronics vendor.

“Now, there’s no more war here. We don’t need it anymore.”

Asked whose responsibility that was, Yan is unwavering: Ieng Sary.

“If he didn’t lead the forces to stop fighting, I can’t say whether I’d even be alive today.”

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