Their regime shuttered pagodas, defrocked monks and sent school children to labor in rice fields, but Democratic Kampuchea’s former leaders spared no amount of religious ceremony and pomp at the cremation of Pol Pot’s first wife, Khieu Ponnary, on Thursday.
Monks in saffron robes chanted as uniformed police officers led Khieu Ponnary’s funeral cortege to a local pagoda, where hundreds of mourners—relatives, friends and local school children conscripted for the occasion—turned out to say farewell to “Sister No 1.”
Younger sister Ieng Thirith, the Khmer Rouge minister of social affairs when more than 1 million Cambodians died of starvation, disease, overwork and execution, delivered a short eulogy for her sibling.
Khieu Ponnary’s life was one of “good deeds and sacrifices…for her beloved people and nation,” Ieng Thirith recollected, the Associated Press reported.
Her sister was a model teacher and a person filled with “deep patriotic conviction,” AP quoted Ieng Thirith as saying.
Nuon Chea, Brother No 2, the former Khmer Rouge leader closest to Pol Pot, was in attendance along with Khieu Samphan, the regime’s head of state, and Ieng Sary, the regime’s foreign minister and brother-in-law of Khieu Ponnary.
While Ieng Thirith reflected on her revolutionary sister’s passing, nephew Ieng Vuth was moved more toward recrimination for the revolution on the occasion of his aunt’s death.
“If she had shared in the leadership of 1975 to 1979, the regime would not have been so serious,” Ieng Vuth, the first deputy governor of Pailin, said by telephone on Thursday.
“Other people did not listen to her,” he said, adding that his aunt favored the use of currency, markets and international trade during the regime.
“She became sick because they did not listen to her,” he said. “I do not only mean Pol Pot, but others as well.”
Khieu Ponnary, 83, died Tuesday evening at Ieng Vuth’s residence in Pailin. She had suffered from dementia for decades, but her health sharply deteriorated earlier this year, relatives said.
“We tried to take care of her and get treatment but we could not save her,” Ieng Vuth said.
Khmer Rouge genocide researcher Craig Etcheson said on Wednesday that Khieu Ponnary’s death will have limited impact on a long-awaited Khmer Rouge tribunal. Though prominent in the early years of the Khmer Rouge movement, Khieu Ponnary had already fallen sick and withdrawn from her leadership position by the time the movement took power in 1975, Etcheson said by e-mail from the US.
“[Khieu Ponnary’s death] underlines the urgency of establishing the tribunal before the handful of remaining senior suspects also escape justice through death,” Etcheson said.
A slender, austere woman with intense eyes, Khieu Ponnary was one of Cambodia’s first female intellectuals.
Khieu San, 73, a student in Sisowath High School when Khieu Ponnary was a teacher there in the 1950s, said her intellectual prowess singled her out for special respect among students and colleagues.
“She was a woman and had a high education. It was not normal, so we respected her very much,” Khieu San, who is not related to Khieu Ponnary, said on Thursday. But that respect was lost by the savagery unleashed by the former intellectuals during their regime.
“Pol Pot forced people and there was only rice porridge to eat and people were killed,” he said.
On reflection, he said, all Khieu Ponnary’s education and knowledge did not breed a good person.