Escaping Justice for Cambodian Deaths

Exclusive: Very few participants in the mass slaughters across Indochina in the 1960s and 1970s have faced meaningful accountability, whether in Washington, Vietnam or Cambodia. Another Khmer Rouge official, Ieng Sary, escaped justice when he died of natural causes while on trial, as Don North reports.

By Don North

You may have missed the news that Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister and co-founder of the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, died recently while on trial for his role in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians. They died of starvation, torture, illness and execution as they labored in the slave camps of the Khmer Rouge between 1970-74.

By dying of a heart attack at age 87, before he could be found guilty of his crimes, Sary escaped punishment and even seizure of the fortune he stole while in power. The tribunal, which has cost $173.3 million to date, is  run by the United Nations, but controlled by the ex-Khmer Rouge dictator of Cambodia, Hun Sen.

Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary. (Photo credit: ECCC Pool/Mak Remissa)

Only two other former Khmer Rouge leaders, Nuon Chea, 86, and Khieu Samphan, 82, are still on trial but are in poor health and also may not live to be found guilty. Only one former Khmer Rouge leader, “Duch,” warden of the infamous Tuol Sleng prison, has been convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Most Cambodians consider the so-called “war crimes tribunal” a mockery of justice.  Hun Sen, the Prime Minister for 28 years, has openly opposed additional indictments of former Khmer Rouge, which is not surprising considering that the current Defense Minister, Interior Minister, Finance Minister and thousands of Army Generals and provincial governors are all former Khmer Rouge.

In late March, Ieng Sary passed into the other world in a cremation ceremony in Malai, once the Khmer Rouge base in remote northwestern Cambodia. My friend Jim Pringle, a former Reuters war correspondent in Vietnam and Cambodia, was the only foreign journalist present.

Sary’s widow Ieng Sirth, who had, like her husband been a founder of the Khmer Rouge, wept bitter tears on her husbands coffin before the flames where ignited. “Papa, please rest in peace,” she cried out as Buddhist monks in saffron robes chanted funeral prayers. The monks capacity for forgiveness is remarkable given that Sary targeted thousands of monks for death during his massacres.

In a sermon at the graveside, one of the monks remarked, “Nobody can take their wealth with them to the next world.” Sary is reputed to have accumulated a large fortune during his days of power through the mining of rubies and sapphires and logging hardwood timber. Reparations and distribution of his ill-gotten gains to families of Khmer Rouge victims was planned to take place after he was found guilty in the tribunal. Now without a guilty verdict, it is reported Sary’s son living in Hong Kong will inherit the fortune.

Pringle was invited to light incense at Sary’s coffin. “I was reluctant to do so,” recalls the culturally sensitive reporter, “but finally for the sake of protocol did so while expressing the hope that in his next life Ieng Sary would be a better person.”

Let us sincerely hope so.

Don North is a veteran military journalist who covered conflict in Vietnam and Cambodia and has recently returned from visiting Cambodia.

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6 comments on “Escaping Justice for Cambodian Deaths

  1. Robert Schwartz on said:

    And what will we write here then, at the inevitable passings of Kissenger, et al., eh? Reagan is lionized, despite the butchery we are well aware of.

    I could go on, but it all seems so obvious…

  2. Ahem on said:

    His death is all too timely, and defies “natural causes”–we all know that fatal heart attacks can be induced. It’s just too convenient that he died before his fortune could be seized. Much better (gag) that it goes to his heir in Hong Kong, rather than to the victimized Cambodians Sary leaves in his destructive, malicious wake……..but this is the way the world turns; the innocents are victimized and oppressed, and the criminals are set free and their loot protected by any means necessary. I wonder if the son has a soul and the compassion to do the right thing……………..

  3. garry on said:

    It is grotesq that this farce in phnom penh is allowed to continue.The crime that the accused are being charged [the forced eviction of people from their homes]is being committed on a massive scale through out cambodia to this day.The purpose of this “court” [Bring to justice those most responsibile for the holocaust] yet nobody from the nixon/kissinger gang [they dropped 3,750 000 tons of explosives on cambodia in SECRET]are not in the dock.It is high time the UN save some credibility and walk away from this mess

  4. Mourng Vichet on said:

    I think Ieng Sary is killer for Cambodian people because current government leader is former Khmer Rouge and in tribunal hall, he did not say to audiences until he died because he is agent for Vietnam .

  5. Revo on said:

    “I was reluctant to do so,” recalls the culturally sensitive reporter, “but finally for the sake of protocol did so while expressing the hope that in his next life Ieng Sary would be a better person.”

    Witnessing so many criminals leaving this world with the blood of millions of innocent masses on their hands, I wish there were another world, so based on religious believes they were paying the price for their crimes before their respective gods. But unfortunately, that fictional world doesn’t exist, and it is just a fiction. Possibly these monsters know better than the rest of us about fictionality of the other world; otherwise, fear of the punishment in the other world might have kept them from committing heinous crimes.

  6. john francis lee on said:

    If you are a Cambodian who killed Cambodians after the utter destruction of Cambodia by the Americans you are a war criminal. If you were the American author of that Cambodian Holocoust … you are a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

    Forty years later it’s still the same … this time the Nobel Peace Prize was pre-emptively awarded to the Corporate Lawyer in Chief in order to license the War Crimes that followed and continue to follow. Syria is next in the series of Barack Obama’s destructions of regimes that resist dominance … not even dominance by the USA any longer, but now by Trans National Corporations. The US has shrunk to mere enforcer of their policies, its citizens’ status no different from that of peoples subject to the holocausts delivered by its military forces on orders relayed by the Corporate Lawyer in Chief from the TNCs.