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A Mother Remembers Ieng Thirith’s Brutal Gender Policy

Jonathan Cox and Tin Sokhavuth / Khmer Times Share:
Mey Ran worked as a medic for Khmer Rouge fighters in Pailin during the civil war, up until the detente in 1996. Khmer Rouge policies kept her separate from her children. KT Photo: Jonathan Cox

PAILIN (Khmer Times) – Sixty-four-year-old Mey Ran sits and watches her granddaughters romp around her two-story house that sits in the middle of her cassava field outside the city of Pailin.

She rarely had the chance to watch her own children play. Ms. Ran, like many mothers who lived in this Khmer Rouge stronghold  before 1996, was a victim of “gender equality” policies that forced mothers apart from their families. 

Instead of raising her children, they were sent to collective childcare centers while she worked as a medic at a field hospital during the civil war. Yet despite the suffering the Khmer Rouge caused her, Ms. Ran said she wants to forgive Ieng Thirith, the woman whose policies separated her from her children. Ms. Thirith died August 22.

“I don’t want to think about her past,” she said.

Criminalizing Motherhood

Mrs. Thirith, the sister-in-law of Pol Pot, was 83 when she died. The cause of death has not been made public. She suffered from dementia, which led to the trial against her in the Khmer Rouge tribunal being dropped.

She left behind a grim legacy. As Social Affairs Minister, she promised to “emancipate” women by separating mothers from their children soon after birth, conscripting women to do the same heavy labor as men, and having them executed if they resisted. 

Ms. Ran experienced these gender policies firsthand.

“I left the children at a collective childcare center to be able to take care of the wounded in the hospital,” she said.

“I saw a lot of children who were put at a place where there was only one old woman to care for them. I pitied those children, but I didn’t know what I could do to help them.” 

Ms. Ran was often stationed at hospitals near the front lines, while her children were left behind in the “safe zone” of the province.

Although she was the one closest to danger, she said she worried about her children rather than herself.

“I didn’t feel safe with my children so far away.” she said. “I always worried that they would be hurt by mortars, bullets, or tanks.” 

Productivity was the main concern of the Khmer Rouge regime, and everything else, including family ties, was expendable. One Khmer Rouge four-year plan said “mothers must not get too entangled with their children; there should be time to go and work.”

These policies did not end with the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Ms. Thirith’s policy still had force in Pailin up until the faction of Ieng Sary – brother number three and her husband – surrendered in 1996. That was three years after UN-run elections brought democracy to Cambodia.

Equally Enslaved

Disguised as efforts to end gender discrimination, Ieng Thirith’s policies were actually aimed at conscripting more women into the labor force. 

Women were forced to trade cooking meals and raising children for building dams, irrigation channels, and airstrips for the Khmer Rouge, said So Farina. 

“In everyday life, women were treated merely as a labor reserve,” Ms. Farina, a researcher at the Documentation Center of Cambodia, wrote in The Hijab of Cambodia: Memories of Cham Muslim Women after the Khmer Rouge. 

“They were forced to break their bonds with their home and family.”

Despite doing the same work as men, women continued to have lower social status.

“Gender equality [policy] attempted to eradicate the traditional family life,” Ms. Farina told Khmer Times. “It did not emancipate women. Rather, it destroyed their relationships without raising their status.” 

Ms. Farina said that Ms. Thirith is to blame for spreading this twisted form of gender equality. 

“She echoed many times that she wanted to liberate women from oppression,” she said.

“But the Khmer Rouge did not liberate women from being exploited and suppressed. In fact, women became more oppressed, were excessively exploited, and had no privacy. Some of them dared to resist and say they wanted to stay with their children longer. Some of them were lucky, but others lost their lives.” 

Moving On

Ms. Ran refused to criticize Ieng Thirith, despite the suffering her policies caused. Even today, criticizing an ex-Khmer Rouge leader can be risky in Pailin.

Ms. Thirith’s son, Ieng Vuth, is the deputy provincial governor of the province, and many former Khmer Rouge still hold power in the province. Her cremation ceremony in Pailin drew between 200 and 300 mourners. 

“The majority of people in Pailin after the fall of the Khmer Rouge are former Khmer Rouge members who were indoctrinated by Khmer Rouge ideology,” said Ms. Farina.

“They consider the Khmer Rouge leaders to be nationalists, including Ieng Thirith.” 

Ms. Thirith’s trial for genocide and crimes against humanity was suspended in 2012 by the tribunal for health reasons, so the architect of the Khmer Rouge’s destructive gender policy spent the last years of her life in freedom. 

Mey Ran said she knows next to nothing about the court that chose to let Thirith go. “I don’t know about government or human rights tribunal,” she said. “It is too complicated for me.” 

Now Ms. Ran has more important concerns than feeling anger toward the First Lady of the Khmer Rouge. “[My husband and I] used to have to work as medics on the front lines,” Ms. Ran said. “But after the integration, we have more time to take care of our family. Now I can take care of my grandchildren.”

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