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
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
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
"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
"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,"
"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.