Malai district, Banteay Meanchey
As dusk descended on Malai last night, one of the country’s last Khmer Rouge strongholds bid farewell to one of its last remaining leaders.
At the cremation of Ieng Sary – former Khmer Rouge foreign minister and the de facto leader of this region for more than two decades – more than a thousand mourners gathered on the final day of his week-long funeral.
A week ago, the 87-year-old − who was facing charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva Convention − died hundreds of kilometres from here. As he drew his last breath in a Phnom Penh hospital, he remained – until the end – a defendant and a detainee of the court.
But with steadfast resolve, the mourners in Malai quietly grieved not for that man but for a wholly different person.
That “he sacrificed his life by leaving his wife and family, moving from place to place” was the only oblique reference made to the Khmer Rouge during a 10-minute-long biography read out by his daughter, Hun Vanny.
“From now on, father, you will rest in peace and you will be remembered in the minds of your children forever.”
As his children prostrated and monks chanted last night, the governor of Pailin, Y Chheam, lit the funeral pyre – a dramatic event that sent a string of firecrackers screaming along a wire toward sthe casket.
Standing near the entrance, where a steady stream of guests left donations with a layman, 58-year-old Som Yin offered a faint smile yesterday afternoon.
“I’m pleased to see so many people travelling from so far to attend this last ceremony,” Yin said. An aide of Sary’s during and after the Khmer Rouge, Yin said he deeply missed the man.
“It was he who initiated the idea of setting up in this area since the beginning of the war until the end,” he said.
After the Khmer Rouge integration brokered by Sary and Prime Minister Hun Sen in 1996, said Yin, the former leader advised his followers to build up the region’s economy, agriculture and land.
“His final achievement was the reconciliation with the government that stopped the war,” he said. “Peace spread from one place to another along the border after he led the integration.”
In return for the integration, Sary was granted a royal pardon and amnesty for his crimes. Upon his arrest in 2007, however, the court overturned the amnesty, ruling that there was no legal validity for it in the first place.
That reneging vexed Sary to the end, said Michael Karnavas, his defence lawyer. “He thought he lived up to his part of the bargain. Hun Sen had said that 60 per cent of the Khmer Rouge had defected because of what he did and that Ieng Sary was very instrumental in bringing peace to the country.”
What happened across Cambodia’s northwest, Karnavas added, was “because of Ieng Sary’s efforts. He was a true agent of peace and reconciliation.”
Starting at dawn, car after car pulled into the Malai compound, discharging mourners carrying mounds of offerings. Sary’s son and sons-in-law had their heads shaved and Ieng Vuth, deputy governor of Pailin, took the robes of a monk, which he will wear for the next seven days.
By 10am, dozens of vehicles had filled the parking lot bearing licence plates from Phnom Penh and Thailand, many bearing government insignia.
A prayer was offered and some 500 mourners poured out from under the tent, ringed the crematorium in front of cartons of noodles and water, and began doling out offerings. Slowly, 89 monks made their way around the circle accepting money and food, and for half an hour, no sounds could be heard but the rustling of the laymen’s sacks as they were rapidly filled to the brim.
A Thai monk, one of perhaps 10 who came to attend the funeral, said he would encourage people to think of one’s motives before judging.
“For a monk, whether you do good or bad depends on your position. Maybe you do it to help protect your country and a monk helps when you die,” said Psathit, 50, who was invited along by a friend and to whom it had to be explained both who Sary was and what occurred during the Khmer Rouge.
“It’s like Hitler, maybe. If you do it to protect your country, it’s OK. Sometimes you cannot help it; sometimes you have to.”
Escorted by her daughters, a frail Ieng Thirith was led to the base of the crematorium to offer a final goodbye. The former Khmer Rouge social affairs minister, Thirith sat side by side with her husband at the Khmer Rouge tribunal as a fellow defendant until she was released in September – deemed unfit to stand trial due to dementia.
Once eagle-eyed, Thirith held a rheumy gaze yesterday, frequently staring off into the distance, unruffled by the hoards of photographers whom her family tried in vain to hold off as she made her first public appearance since the release.
As they approached the pyre, a photo of Sary as a younger man displayed at the base, Thirith’s daughters gently urged her to say goodbye to their father.
“Papa, did you see the sister?” Thirith asked in a small, clear voice, a likely reference to her sister and Pol Pot’s wife, Khieu Ponnary.
“Papa, go with happiness.
“Papa, I thank you very much.”