Ieng Sary during his trial in Cambodia for Khmer Rouge atrocities. He has died aged 87

The third most senior figure in the Khmer Rouge, Ieng Sary, has died aged 87. He was standing trial for his role in the Cambodian Genocide, an event which claimed the lives of between 1.7 and 2.2 million people. Ieng’s death is the latest indication that the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the tribunal set up to try the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge, is failing. The ECCC has only obtained one conviction to date, and many Cambodians fear the lack of urgency in the long and protracted process means they will not get the justice they seek.

The fear among Cambodians is that Ieng Sary will not be an isolated case. He was standing trial with two other senior figures in the Khmer Rouge, Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, who are also octogenarians. The charges that were brought against them include genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ieng Sary’s wife, the former Minister for Social Affairs Ieng Thirth, was also charged but has since been ruled unfit to stand trial on medical grounds. It is rumoured that she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

The Cambodian Genocide took place during the rule of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (Cambodia), also known as the Khmer Rouge. Senior party members, inspired by the thought of achieving a socialist utopia, embraced the practise of social engineering, and tried to create an agrarian socialist society based on agricultural reform. Wanting to make a decisive break with the past, the communist leadership abolished anything thought to belong to traditional Cambodian culture or Western capitalist influences. Therefore, currency, free markets and private property were all abolished. Hospitals, buildings used for religious purposes and factories were all shut down. The urban population was forcibly moved to the countryside and organised into collective farms and labour camps. They were tasked with producing impossible amounts of rice with little rest or food. This restructuring of Cambodian society took place almost overnight.

The dream was unrealisable and the results were disastrous: of a population of 8 million people, it is thought that 1.7-2.2 million people died – 20-25% of the population – in the short reign of the Khmer Rouge. They died from overwork, starvation or disease as a result of the new agrarian emphasis.

Still more chilling were the infamous mass executions in the country’s ‘Killing Fields’. Those targeted for extermination included anyone with connections to foreign governments, ethnic minorities and those who simply could not work any more were targeted for extermination. As time passed, activities deemed ‘counter-revolutionary’ became more and more arbitrary.

Professionals and intellectuals were also targeted, and here Ieng Sary played a starring role. In his role as foreign minister, Ieng persuaded hundreds of Cambodian intellectuals and diplomats to come home to rebuild the country. Those who returned were arrested and executed. The Khmer Rouge’s hatred for intellectuals was so great that all signs of learning, such as wearing glasses, were branded ‘counter-revolutionary’ activity.

Counter-revolutionaries were sent to the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, known as ‘S-21’, where it is thought 20,000 people were executed. The camp’s Director, Khang Khek leu, known as Comrade Duch’ (pronounced ‘Doik’) is the only conviction the ECCC has secured.

Out of the 14,000 inmates of Tuol Sleng, it is thought only 12 survived. Bou Meng, 72, is one of them. Upon hearing the news, he said “Justice for the victims is fading little by little,”

“The court must speed up the trial…I deserve some kind of justice while I’m still alive.”

With this horror and only one conviction, it is easy to understand why many Cambodians feel cheated.

BY: Matthew Jones