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Khmer Rouge Leader Dies, a New Blow to a Stagnant UN Tribunal


Ieng Sary, a co-founder and the third-highest official in the murderous Khmer Rouge movement that decimated Cambodian society in the 1970s, died in a Phnom Penh hospital on March 14 at age 87. The death of Ieng Sary, who became the public face of the Khmer Rouge as the regime’s foreign minister, robs the already faltering United Nations-backed tribunal of one of the last leaders of the movement, which left up to 1.7 million Cambodians dead in executions or through starvation, disease and hard labor.

Only two former Khmer Rouge leaders remain in the custody of the tribunal in Phnom Penh, which was established jointly by the government and a reluctant UN nearly a decade ago, though it was unable to begin trials of leaders until 2011. Those still on trial are Khieu Samphan, who served as president of the regime, and Nuon Chea, chief ideologue and propagandist, who was known as Brother Number Two to Pol Pot, the movement’s Brother Number One.  Both are very old and infirm, leaving the possibility that they also may not survive to face justice.

Ieng Sary of the Khmer Rouge
Ieng Sary, a co-founder of the Khmer Rouge, is dead at age 87, robbing the UN-backed Khmer Rouge Tribunal of yet another defendant.

Ieng Thirith, the wife of Ieng Sary and the Khmer Rouge minister of social affairs – a macabre title in the context of the brutality all around her – was also in the custody of the Cambodian tribunal, but she was ruled unfit to stand trial last fall because of dementia. Pol Pot, the leader of the movement that was dedicated to returning Cambodia to the Year Zero, whatever the human cost, died in a jungle hideout in 1998. His wife and Ieng Thirith were sisters in the tangled web of the Khmer Rouge leadership.

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Pol Pot and Ieng Sary were studying in Paris together in the early 1950s when they came under the influence of the European political left and began to frame the movement that the late King Norodom Sihanouk first called the Red Khmer, or Khmer Rouge in French. Within Cambodia, the regime was known among the population simply as Angkha, “the organization,” and was much feared as it emptied cities and tried to restructure rural life in a deadly, extreme form of communism.

In its report on the life and death of Ieng Sary, the South China Morning Post, in its March 14 issue, quoted Steve Heder, a leading scholar of the Khmer Rouge leadership. He described Ieng Sary as a member of the Cambodian Communist movement who “repeatedly and publicly encouraged, and also facilitated, arrests and executions within his foreign ministry and throughout Cambodia.” Heder, an American and author of “Seven Candidates for Prosecution: Accountability for the Crimes of the Khmer Rouge,” was an adviser to the Cambodian tribunal until he resigned after interference from the current government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a minor Khmer Rouge official. He is widely perceived to be intent on preventing prosecutors from reaching far into Khmer Rouge leadership ranks to put more people on trial.

Numerous other international legal scholars, lawyers and others involved with the tribunal’s work have also given up on it. The tribunal, formally titled the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, was designed to give the government and the UN joint partnership, with both international and Cambodian lawyers, prosecutors and judges. It has been plagued with financial and legal difficulties from its inception.

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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