From left: Sim Son, the former DK ambassador to North Korea,
Ieng Sary, Pol Pot, Nuon Chea and Son Sen - in a rare suited
appearance - visit to what is believed to be Pyongyang, in 1983.
PAILIN - For Ieng Sary, there was no emotion. None.
Barely 48 hours after Pol Pot's death, the man who was by turns his friend, fellow
scholar and revolutionary, a brother in the Khmer tradition by marriage, a cohort
- whose culpability is still being debated and by him denied - in a regime bloody
and reviled in history, his betrayer and at the death his enemy, said: "C'est
la mort, c'est tout. C'est la vie, c'est la mort."
That's death, that is all. That's life. That's death.
Ieng Sary may himself be aware of his own mortality. He said he had been very ill
since early this month, and later mentioned that he would never have come out in
the rain to be interviewed but that he had something important to say. He seemed
to have to consciously speak clearly and deliberately, and occasionally he gently
gripped his left shoulder while his arm remained limp.
But politically, Ieng Sary is a strong man, arguably never so much so as he is today.
Pol Pot was dead and the corpse was being shown on foreign television channels, but
most of the 30,000-odd people in and around Pailin didn't know, or at least weren't
talking about it. It wasn't time for them yet. Their leaders, Sary and Pol Pot's
former personal bodyguard Ee Chhean, had not decreed it should be so.
Radio Pailin FM hadn't got the OK to break the news. If the station's generator had
been running, it would have been continuing to broadcast approved songs, non-political
news tailored for the good of its listeners, and advice on agriculture, health and
the needs of the market.
The Pailin hierachy was safe in the knowledge that had someone caught a snippet on
Thai TV or Voice of America radio, that person wouldn't have had the gall to interpret
the news as good, bad or indifferent until Sary or Chhean had told them.
Time and again, seeking reaction to Pol Pot's death from Pailin moto-taxi riders,
drink sellers, soldiers, most anyone, degenerated into mere parroting of some gossipy
tid-bit. "Pol Pot dead? Really. Oh." And then onto other things.
The definitive Pailin reaction to the death wasn't "official", even if
still private, till a few minutes after 3pm on Thursday, April 17 - 23 years to the
day since Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. On that historic occasion Sary was
Comrade Van. On this, Ieng Sary: "It's been a long time for me since I had any
relations with Pol Pot. So I cannot be completely up to date, but there is one thing
of which I am sure, that he is dead. Pol Pot is dead."
Sary had it satisfactorily confirmed just that morning. "Some former military
[people] from Banteay Meanchey visited and told me he was dead." They hadn't
seen the corpse "and I have no contact with anyone who has seen it... but nevertheless,
it is sure he is dead".
Later, he would detail Pol Pot's litany of ailments while still alive: cancer in
organs around his lower back "for which he had treatment in China in 1983, or
1986, my memory fails me"; the ruined valves of his heart. And all this coupled
with internal and international political pressure, fighting, fleeing, and life in
the jungle. "The recent past has really been a very miserable existence"
for Pol Pot, he said. A heart attack killed him "absolutely. It was a natural
His first reaction, apparently just that morning, was of the many past rumors of
Pol Pot's death "which have been around for such a long time. He has been sick,
now finally he is dead.
"It is the end of the question. The question is finally answered." Now,
he said, was the opportunity for reunification of the country.
But his personal reaction in his own heart? "Really, it's no surprise at all.
I have no reaction. No emotion. C'est la mort, c'est tout. C'est la vie, c'est la
mort." He shrugged, smiled and settled back in his chair.
Unknown as of this moment to Sary, though surely not unexpected, news of Pol Pot's
death was igniting fresh calls for a reckoning with the other authors of the killing
fields. Sary was being named again and again, with plenty of film footage, around
Pol Pot had "escaped" an earthly court of justice. When asked for his comment,
a misunderstanding prompted a snappish Sary reply: "Many times I told the Phnom
Penh Post that if it is in the interests of union, then I will appear in front of
a court - a Cambodian court. If it is in the interests of union. The Post misrepresented
[me, in an interview in August 1996]. I hope this time you can [get it] straight."
Quickly, the question again: we meant of Pol Pot's escape from legal questioning,
no-one else. "I believe that if he came before a court he would not have responded
about his life. He would have done what he normally did, that is to accuse other
people, and above all the Vietnamese."
Ieng Sary believes the movement he helped create "will continue, with people
like Ta Mok, but not for much longer. As for Pol Pot, he hadn't done anything since
July 1997 when he was condemned".
Whether this was now a time for reflection, or, rather, should the door now be shut
on history, Sary said: "You can talk to people in Phnom Penh, I don't know what
they will say. But people here? They say that's the past."
And "here" of course is Pailin, where no-one questions leaders who can
instantly insulate their zone from guns, traffic, news and outside influence, as
apparently happened here during the coup in Phnom Penh last July.
Is this the place some foreign politician believes can somehow be entered, to take
away Ieng Sary? It was a question best re-worded: Perhaps, in reality, there are
many actors - the US, China, Thailand, Vietnam, Hun Sen, King Sihanouk, others -
who preferred Pol Pot's quiet jungle demise, all having their own histories to hide?
"I have no information about that," Sary said. "But it would be better
to look for every means possible to aid and develop Cambodia now, to [encourage]
respect for human rights, rather than to reveal the past.
"The only value in looking at that past is to make sure it doesn't happen again.
We should struggle for democracy and human rights so that the past doesn't come back
There were to be no anecdotes about Pol Pot from Ieng Sary in this interview. Nothing
to emotionally or intellectually betray a working and personal relationship, good
or later strained to bad, that stretched back 40 years and to times, stories, crises
and words immeasurable.
"I stress to you that the death of Pol Pot gave me no ideas at all... it didn't
make me reflect, or remember. It is not a special occasion."
But, he was politely asked again, this is such a big story for the outside world?
"Yes. But really we [Cambodians] have so many other things to talk about, so
many problems we have to solve.
"We have to build democracy, respect for human rights, and to show the world
that in Cambodia there is unity."