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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Searching history for the culpability of Ieng Sary

Searching history for the culpability of Ieng Sary

IENG Sary has become infamous around the world as "Brother No.2", second

only to Pol Pot in the hierarchy of a radical movement whose reign of power is synonymous

with mass murder.

The reality, according to scholars still trying to untangle the complex web of the

1975-79 Pol Pot regime, is at least a little less clear-cut.

Ieng Sary was not Brother No.2 in that regime, nor in the subsequent rebel leadership,

according to several experts. He earned the title - via his position as Pol Pot's

brother-in-law and as his Foreign Minister - from the Vietnamese after they ousted

the KR regime.

So what was Ieng Sary's place in the top tier of the brutal regime and, more important,

what crimes is he guilty of? The answers are by no means indisputable.

What is known is that he was Foreign Minister and one of several vice-Prime Ministers

in the Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) era. He served on the standing committee

of its central committee - the regime's governing body.

As such he should have been privy to the decision-making of the regime, whose policies

claimed the lives of up to two million Cambodians through execution, starvation or

illness.

But what historians call the "smoking gun" - evidence which directly implicates

someone in the ordering of heinous crimes - has so far been elusive in the case of

Sary.

Several historians contacted by the Post said they had not seen any "smoking

gun" evidence against Sary, but acknowledged they did not know what the US-funded

genocide investigation program may have uncovered.

Program investigators claim to have retrieved stacks of previously unknown KR documents,

some of which may well feature Sary, but are keeping them under wraps.

So far, the only court that Sary has faced was a Vietnamese-organized tribunal that

sentenced him and Pol Pot, in absentia, to death. Held within months of Vietnam's

1979 invasion of Cambodia to evict the KR regime, it was a show trial - the lawyer

appointed to defend Sary called for the death sentence.

According to American historian and Cambodia expert Stephen Heder, the Vietnamese

may have singled out Sary as Brother No.2 because of his close relations with Pol

Pot - the pair were married to sisters.

Also, as Foreign Minister of the rabidly anti-Vietnamese Democratic Kampuchea, "Ieng

Sary epitomized its foreign policy. In order to signal that this was what they were

upset about, the Vietnamese decided to blithely make him their No.2 target."

Sary, born in Kampuchea Krom (or lower Cambodia, as many Khmers call part of southern

Vietnam), had never indicated he was anything other than a hardliner toward Vietnam.

Heder says the hierarchy of the Pol Pot regime and the influence of individual members

on its decisions is complex to determine - but Brother No.2 was Nuon Chea.

Fellow historians David Chandler and Christophe Peschoux put Sary at about No. 4

or No.5 in rank.

Nuon Chea - a figure Peschoux describes as just as mysterious as the obsessively

secretive Pol Pot - has largely escaped notoriety for his continuing role as the

KR leader's right-hand man.

"The reality," says Heder, "is that Ieng Sary was never a major power

figure.

"You were only a major power figure if you had some kind of power base. He had

no power base, his position was almost entirely based on his relationship with his

brother-in-law [Pol Pot]."

Sary spent much of his time in Beijing during the resistance before the fall of Phnom

Penh to Pol Pot's forces. An intellectual, he had never controlled a "liberated

zone" in the countryside and was not a soldier.

When the KR seized power, Sary got the foreign affairs portfolio, which Pol Pot considered

as "something you have to have, but not very important", says Heder.

Nevertheless - and potentially most incriminating for him - Sary did sit on the KR's

central committee.

"Whether that meant he necessarily agreed with everything that was decided by

it or not could presumably only be decided by something resembling a fair trial,"

says Heder.

"There's evidence to support both the hypothesis that he agreed with everything

that was decided and the hypothesis that he didn't agree with everything."

Any trial that could be held of Sary today would likely center on his possible role

in purges of expatriate Khmers and foreign affairs staff.

He is believed to have been involved with the handling of Khmer expatriates who returned

to Cambodia, some allegedly at the urging of Pol Pot officials, during the first

two years of the regime. The decision was later taken to kill many of them.

After that decision, according to Heder, some Cambodian foreign ministry staff in

China or other countries were recalled home - presumably on orders of Sary, as Foreign

Minister - and "went straight to Toul Sleng [torture and execution center]."

After the KR fled to the jungle in 1979, Sary reportedly acknowledged the existence

of Toul Sleng to a journalist - and claimed that he had tried to stop people from

being sent there.

"There may be a grain of truth in that," says Heder. There is evidence

that Sary protected foreign affairs staff whom he had personally recruited - including

current Minister of Finance Keat Chhon - from persecution by KR security forces.

Despite evidence of attempts to target them in purges, a "striking" number

of such people survived, apparently because Sary used his influence with Pol Pot

to have them spared.

But Heder and other historians acknowledge they do not know what new evidence may

have been uncovered by the US genocide investigation team currently at work.

Now that Sary is possibly within the grasp of the Cambodian government, the hunt

for the "smoking gun" against him is likely to take on greater significance.

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