Ieng Thirith, Khmer Rouge ‘First Lady,’ Dies at 83

Ieng Thirith, who was among Pol Pot’s inner circle during the rule of the Khmer Rouge as the regime’s social affairs minister, died on Saturday in Pailin province, where her family remains influential. She was 83.

The wife of Ieng Sary, the foreign minister under Pol Pot who died in 2013, she was often referred to as the regime’s “first lady,” and was the only woman to hold a senior position in Democratic Kampuchea.

Ieng Thirith sits in the dock during a pretrial hearing at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh in February 2009. (John Vink)
Ieng Thirith sits in the dock during a pretrial hearing at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh in February 2009. (John Vink)

Charged with crimes against humanity by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, proceedings against Ieng Thirith were halted when she was found unfit to stand trial due to progressive dementia and released from custody in 2012.

She died at 10:45 a.m. on Saturday at the home of her son, Ieng Vuth, the deputy governor of Pailin province, according to her youngest daughter, Ieng Vichakra.

Ieng Thirith had been a hard-line member of the group of intellectuals that would eventually lead the Khmer Rouge as far back as the 1950s, when many of them studied in France and developed the policies they later implemented to horrific effect.

Born Khieu Thirith on March 12, 1932, she was the daughter of a respected judge and was among the first young women to graduate from the prestigious Preah Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh.

“She was a rather inflexible and intolerant person,” said Ong Thong Hoeung, who lived among many of Ieng Thirith’s contemporaries while studying in Paris in the 1960s and 1970s, and spent the Khmer Rouge era in a prison camp for Cambodian returnees.

“Like many others of Cambodia’s ruling class, she presented herself as progressive but in fact was profoundly conservative and feudal in her behavior and lifestyle: She behaved like a queen during the Khmer Rouge regime,” he said Sunday.

A strong-willed beauty who had attracted the attention of many young men, Ieng Thirith surprised everyone when she chose to wed Ieng Sary, wrote American journalist Elizabeth Becker in her book “When the War Was Over.”

“She was considered his superior in social standing, intellectual prowess and charm,” Ms. Becker wrote. “She saw in Sary a born leader.”

The couple’s 1951 wedding in Paris, where they were enrolled at university—Ieng Thirith studied Shakespeare at the Sorbonne —was attended by hundreds.

“It was the last happy affair Thirith remembered when all of her Cambodian friends could gather without argument,” wrote Ms. Becker, who interviewed Ieng Thirith in 1980. Her older sister, Khieu Ponnary, would marry Saloth Sar, the future Pol Pot, in 1956.

When Ieng Thirith returned to Cambodia with a diploma in English literature in 1957, she and her sister taught at state and private schools to support revolutionary activities and their husbands, who were working full-time for the cause.

“For a time, the four of them…lived together in a rented house west of the palace that belonged to the sisters’ family,” wrote historian David Chandler. But in 1963, they went into hiding as the two men were about to be arrested by the security forces of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who ruled the country.

When the Khmer Rouge seized power on April 17, 1975, “Thirith, Sary and their children were the most visible top figures of the revolution,” Ms. Becker wrote.

Ieng Thirith, Pol Pot's former minister of social affairs, in Pailin province in 1999 (Youk Chhang)
Ieng Thirith, Pol Pot’s former minister of social affairs, in Pailin province in 1999 (Youk Chhang)

With Ieng Sary the new foreign minister, Ieng Thirith became minister of social affairs and, because her sister suffered from mental illness and was kept out of public view, handled the official duties of a first lady, such as greeting foreign delegations when they visited.

The couple obtained benefits denied to the population, which faced brutal conditions—about 1.7 million people are believed to have perished during the Khmer Rouge era.

“While her party was forcibly breaking apart families in the countryside, Thirith arranged for her four grown children to be housed near her and share in the privileged life of the new Phnom Penh elite,” Ms. Becker wrote. “Their children, with dubious credentials, were given sought-after positions.”

Although they extolled the Khmer Rouge’s work camps, where kitchens were shared and food was scarce, “Thirith and Sary…had the equivalent of private suites, and maids to clean their rooms, and cook their meals. They had their own chauffeurs, bodyguards, and aides-de-camp,” she wrote.

In mid-1976, Ieng Thirith was sent by Pol Pot to the Northwestern Zone to investigate charges that workers were being abused. She found what she described as “problems” and conditions that were “very queer”: underfed people of all ages working in the hot sun, often sick with malaria and diarrhea.

Similar conditions could be found everywhere in Cambodia at the time, Ms. Becker wrote. But this was not the fault of Khmer Rouge leadership, in Ieng Thirith’s opinion. She concluded that Khmer Rouge officials in the Northwestern Zone had deliberately disobeyed the party’s orders.

“Thirith reacted like her fellow Khmer Rouge leaders and immediately suspected that enemy agents were afoot,” Ms. Becker wrote. “And then the leaders plotted a purge of the zone.”

Ieng Sary, left, and Ieng Thirith in Pailin province in 1999 (Youk Chhang)
Ieng Sary, left, and Ieng Thirith in Pailin province in 1999 (Youk Chhang)

In her interview with Ms. Becker in 1980, Ieng Thirith had come to accept some of the responsibility on behalf of the regime, the journalist said in an interview on Sunday.

“She was the minister of social affairs and she did have power over the conditions of everyday life of Cambodians,” Ms. Becker said. “In my interview, she admits to some of the misery but blames others, for instance regional commanders.”

In January 1979, the reality that Vietnamese forces assisted by Cambodian divisions were about to defeat the Khmer Rouge army came as a surprise to regime leaders, Ms. Becker said.

“Ieng Thirith…described how confused the leadership was. ‘We only packed a few of our clothes,’ she said. ‘We thought we would be back shortly.’”

The Khmer Rouge regrouped along the Thai border with support from China, the U.S. and several other countries. Ieng Thirith and Ieng Sary remained with the regime until the mid-1990s, when Ieng Sary opened negotiations with the Cambodian government. The couple eventually surrendered—Ieng Sary obtained amnesty from King Norodom Sihanouk in 1996—and moved to Phnom Penh.

Ieng Thirith was arrested in November 2007 and remained in custody until her release in 2012.

Her funeral is scheduled to begin in Pailin this morning, with Ieng Thirith’s body to be cremated in the evening, according to Kong Doeung, director of the provincial information department.

The only members of the Khmer Rouge leadership who remain alive are Nuon Chea, Pol Pot’s second in command, and Khieu Samphan, the regime’s head of state, who are both appealing their 2014 life sentences for crimes against humanity and remain on trial.

(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)

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