Malai district, Banteay Meanchey
Preparations were furiously under way yesterday for today’s cremation of former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary.
At his Daung village compound, family members draped white and black funeral bunting along balustrades while a small group of workers speedily assembled rainbow-striped tents – slowly filling the massive courtyard.
In its centre sat an ornate two-storey crematorium, illuminated by floodlights as the sun began to set.
From the inside of Sary’s home – the ground floor of which had been converted into a ceremonial funeral room – the sound of chanting drifted over the generators.
“Don’t be sad upon death,” a monk intoned before launching into the tesna teachings, imploring followers to practice good deeds.
As mourners slowly spilled into the compound over the course of the day, the men and women who gathered in pink satin-covered chairs and sipped soda spoke of a man who, to the best of his ability, did just that.
For the mourners who have gathered in Malai – many of them travelling no farther than the neighbouring former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin – Sary is remembered far more for his actions of the late 1990s than for his role as the third-ranking leader of the Khmer Rouge.
There is little doubt, mourners quietly admit, that needless deaths occurred during the Khmer Rouge and the decades following.
But, they argue, that is past.
“I don’t want to recall the Khmer Rouge time, because we put down our guns,” said Seth, a former soldier who fought under Sary from 1978 until he led the Khmer Rouge integration in 1996. “Without Ieng Sary leading the forces to end the war, we would still be fighting. One after another. Generation after generation.”
As night falls, car after car pulls into the compound and mourners join the family in their prayers in front of Sary’s coffin. Spilling across the walls are dozens of elaborate wreaths from neighbours, friends and supporters in Thailand. In black writing on white silk, a Thai journalists association offers condolences.
Today, more than a thousand people are expected to make their way to this border home. Local farmers who credit Sary for developing Pailin and Malai will sit side by side with high-ranking former cadres. Y Chhean – the governor of Pailin and Sary’s former right-hand man – is expected to bring a delegation from Pailin.
Ieng Thirith, Sary’s wife and former co-defendant at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, left Phnom Penh yesterday to join her children here last night. The trip is her first to the family home since her September release after being deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia.
Sin Saman is one of 89 monks who will line the crematorium tomorrow to receive offerings. The 24-year-old has lived in Pailin his whole life and has little sense of the devastation wrought.
“I never knew him, I just heard his name,” he said. “I don’t know the history of the Khmer Rouge. I don’t know about whether they destroyed pagodas or killed monks,” he admitted, before getting up and walking in to the house. He had been called in to join the blessing.