Khmer Rouge ‘First Lady’ Dies

Chea Vannak and James Reddick / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Ieng Thirith is pictured above in the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia in 2011. Photo: ECCC

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Nearly every day, Bou Meng, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime, sits in the courtyard of S-21 prison telling visitors about the crimes committed here.  

“I suffered a lot under the regime,” he said yesterday. “And I still don’t have my justice.” 

For survivors, the death of Ieng Thirith, the top-ranking woman in the Khmer Rouge and the sister-in-law of party leader Pol Pot, is another reminder of the difficulties of punishing those responsible for the death of nearly two million people from 1975 to 1979.

Ms. Thirith, 83, died on Saturday in her home in Pailin Province of an apparent heart attack, her son said. 

The wife of Ieng Sary, the third in command within the Khmer Rouge, Ms. Thirith was the Minister of Social Affairs for Democratic Kampuchea. 

She appeared before the Khmer Rouge tribunal on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, homicide and other crimes related to her role in the “planning, direction, coordination and ordering of widespread purges.”

Ironically for a member of a group that persecuted intellectuals, she was a graduate of the Sorbonne.
Mrs. Thirith was deemed unfit to stand trial in 2011 after the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) found that she was suffering from dementia. 

Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that, as the director of social affairs, Ms. Thirith failed to provide even basic  health services to the public. 

The Dead Are Still With Us

“All of the Cambodian victims are still with us, and we still consider her one of the criminals of the Pol Pot regime,” Mr. Chhang said.

Ms. Thirith’s path to revolution began at Lycée Sisowath de Phnom Penh, where she met her future husband.

Along with her sister, Khieu Ponnary, the couple moved to Paris in 1952, where Ms. Thirith studied English Literature at the Sorbonne. 

Pol Pot, Mr. Sary, Ms. Thirith and her sister – later dubbed the “Gang of Four”– championed communism and eventually settled along the border with Vietnam.  

From 1970 until 1975, Ms Thirith lived in Hanoi where she ran the Khmer Rouge  radio station. She finally returned to Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge takeover. 

When it came to running the ministry, Ms. Thirith showed the same paranoia of foreign agents that characterized the other Khmer Rouge leaders.

She told journalist Elizabeth Becker in 1978 that she went up to Battambang to survey a work camp: “Conditions there were very queer.”

She said illness was rampant and the elderly and children were working in the hot sun. She accused  provincial leaders of sabotage.

“Agents had got into our ranks,” she said, attempting to justify the purge that would follow. 

In her testimony before the tribunal in 2009, Ms. Thirith insisted that she was not a “murderer.” But accusations against her in the court’s indictment allege that she was directly involved in arresting civilians and party members and sending them to S-21. 

“Ieng Thirith gave [me] a list of persons to be removed,” a party member told investigators. “I then told those whose names were in the list to go to the Ministry of Social Affairs, and those persons never returned.”   

Investigators for the court found that 116 people were arrested from within the Ministry of Social Affairs and sent to S-21. 

After the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, Ms. Thirith remained with the Khmer Rouge, serving in the party’s Foreign Ministry. Only in 1996, when her husband declared loyalty to Prime Minister Hun Sen, did she defect from the Khmer Rouge.

Until 2007, when she was arrested with Mr. Sary, she lived comfortably in a villa near the city center. 

Thus far, the ECCC has handed down sentences to party leaders Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, as well as Kaing Guek Eav, who operated S-21.

Mrs. Thirith isn’t the only accused high-level Khmer Rouge official to escape the reach of the court. While on trial, her husband died in March, 2013, before the court could issue a verdict.

In the capital, residents expressed frustration with the lack of prosecution.

Phann Doeun, 38, said yesterday that, given the age of both survivors and the perpetrators, the tribunal needed to hurry up the process.

Another resident, Sok Oeun, agreed. 

“I want to see our elders get their justice for the regime killing.”

Ms. Thirith’s funeral will be held this evening in Den Niev Village in Pailin, long a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. 

Her son and Pailin Provincial Governor Ieng Vuth, said that local villagers “respect her like they do any other elders.” 

After Mr. Vuth’s father, Ieng Sary, died in 2013, his elaborate funeral drew hundreds of people, some of them connected to the government.
Asked what he thought his mother’s legacy should be, Mr. Vuth declined to answer.

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Khmer Rouge ‘first lady’ Ieng Thirith dies: Cambodia tribunal