Malai district, Banteay Meanchey
Many residents in this long-time bastion of pro-Khmer Rouge sentiment have fond memories of Ieng Sary, the former war crimes defendant whose death last week at the age of 87 freed him from prosecution.
But they also remember another man, the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, whose visits to Malai in the mid-1980s are a somewhat forgotten piece of history. A replica of the compound where he stayed is there today, used as a library and for Buddhist ceremonies.
“Every time he came, the security was very tight for him,” said Min Yen, 66, whose husband helped build the structure where Sihanouk greeted foreign dignitaries in his role as part of the exiled coalition government that included leaders of the Khmer Rouge.
Several years ago, locals used the still-standing but dilapidated wooden compound as a model to construct a new brick replica by its side. They then razed the original.
The open space left over, which is less than 100 metres from Sary’s house, now serves as a playground for kids, who fill the area in the evening.
Yen, who moved from Kampong Cham to Malai district in 1979 when the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from power, said the “credential hall” was first built in 1981 as a location for holding Buddhist ceremonies during Pchum Ben or Khmer New Year.
The United Nations-recognised Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea was founded in 1982 and lasted until the Paris peace agreement in 1991.
Khamboly Dy, a researcher with the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said the then Prince Sihanouk came “many times” to receive diplomatic visitors. In 1984, only a few hours after he left, “Vietnamese and PRK [People’s Republic of Kampuchea] soldiers ran over Malai, forcing the KR [Khmer Rouge] to flee to Thailand for a while,” Dy said.
Yen was with those who temporarily left. She said that Malai remained a battle zone until influential Khmer Rouge leaders, including Sary, defected to the government in 1996.
Hok Ran, 61, a police officer at Malai district, said that Sary and former head of state Khieu Samphan – now one of two remaining defendants at the war crimes court – could be seen receiving foreign delegates with Sihanouk.
“King Sihanouk at that time just came to receive credentials and then he went back,” Ran said while walking back from Sary’s funeral ceremony.
Malai residents mourned Sihanouk after learning of his death on October 15. A portrait was put up in the replica structure and Buddhist monks came to bless his memory.
Though the two may have been part of the same coalition government, the relationship between them was less than warm, Dy from the documentation centre said. After the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, Pol Pot wanted Sihanouk to denounce the Vietnamese before the UN.
“Ieng Sary demanded that the king went only with his wife, leaving the entire royal family members in Cambodia, presumably as hostages,” Dy said. “However, Pol Pot allowed the whole royal family to board the Chinese plane for China. Subsequently, the relationship between the two remained unpleasant.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JOE FREEMAN