When Khmer Rouge war crimes suspect Ieng Sary passed away last week, so too did any chance of recovering the large amounts of money and property he is believed to have accumulated as one of Pol Pot’s inner circle, and then later as leader of rebel forces in the Pailin area in the 1990s when gem mining and logging were at their height.
The wealth of the Pol Pot regime’s late foreign minister was long rumored, but according to Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, Ieng Sary, as the Khmer Rouge’s chief financial controller, had access to a $20-million fund provided by the Chinese government.
In an interview on Monday, Mr. Chhang said that he had begun investigating the assets of the regime alongside collecting evidence of their alleged crimes in the 1990s. He said that he discovered from documents and interviews with witnesses that the Khmer Rouge had access to a bank account in Hong Kong, through which China funneled millions of dollars to the movement over many years.
“Ieng Sary was the name on the account,” Mr. Chhang said, citing a now-deceased former Khmer Rouge finance official, Comrade Rith, who set up the account and managed transactions for the guerilla movement when it was based on the Thai border in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Hong Kong bank account story was backed up by the testimony of four other former Khmer Rouge officials, who claimed the account held about $20 million, Mr. Chhang said.
“I have conducted research before [Ieng Sary] was arrested… hoping that the resource could be used for victim reparations,” Mr. Chhang said.
Author and historian Henri Locard said there was no doubt that Ieng Sary was in charge of finances for the Khmer Rouge before and after the 1975 to 1979 period of their rule when almost two million people died from starvation, disease and execution.
“When he was in Beijing in ’71 to ’75, the Chinese would supply as much money as he wanted, for the revolution. The Chinese were supplying of course weapons, but also dollars, and the dollars went through him,” Mr. Locard said.
“And it was the same after the Khmer Rouge [rule]. How much he skimmed off that, no one can tell.”
As well as the cash from China, which continued up to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, Ieng Sary also accumulated wealth from selling huge amounts of timber and gemstones extracted from Thai-Cambodian border areas he commanded around Pailin and Banteay Meanchey province’s Malai district up until his defection to the government in 1996, Mr. Locard said.
“He made a lot of money out of the revolution,” Mr. Locard said.
“What is probable is that Ieng Sary’s family should be immensely wealthy,” he added.
After he defected to the government in 1996, Ieng Sary was also denounced by his former revolutionary colleagues for pocketing their cash. In a broadcast on Khmer Rouge-controlled radio just hours before his defection was officially confirmed, Ieng Sary was accused of stealing more than 250 million Thai baht, about $10 million at the time, that had been provided by the Chinese to Pol Pot’s forces between 1985 and 1991.
Until his arrest in 2007, Ieng Sary and his wife Ieng Thirith, also a former Khmer Rouge minister, lived in a large villa in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district and took regular trips to Thailand for medical checkups.
Ieng Sary’s remains were brought from Phnom Penh on Thursday to another large residence in Malai, which locals and relatives said belonged to the former Pol Pot regime leader.
Ieng Vuth, Ieng Sary’s son and current deputy governor of Pailin province, on Monday dismissed the claim that his father had control of the alleged Khmer Rouge bank account in Hong Kong as “speculation,” and declined to comment on his family’s wealth.
Kong Duong, director of the Pailin provincial information department, said Monday that Ieng Sary’s family owns a large corn-processing factory in the province, which is run by his eldest daughter, Ieng Minh. And his son, Mr. Vuth, owns a 40-room hotel in Pailin, Mr. Duong said.
In 2007, the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Defense Support Section deemed Ieng Sary and his wife, Ieng Thirith, to be indigent and, therefore, qualified to have their legal costs, thousands of dollars each month, paid for by the U.N.-backed war crimes court.
“He certainly made himself indigent,” said Mr. Locard, who added that the former foreign minister was “certainly the richest” of the Khmer Rouge leaders.
In other countries where tyrannical leaders have amassed fortunes at the expense of their people, such as in the Philippines with Ferdinand Marcos and Haiti’s Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, successive governments have pursued the assets to provide rep-arations for victims.
But there is little hope of such an effort in Ieng Sary’s case.
Following his death, the Khmer Rouge tribunal’s Office of the Co-Prosecutors announced it had dropped its case against Ieng Sary—and victims’ reparations requires a conviction.
“A reparation verdict is dependant on a conviction,” said the tribunal’s legal communications officer Lars Olsen.
Similarly, Cambodian law does not allow for a civil case to be brought against a person who is deceased.
“It’s hopeless since the criminal law stipulates that when a defendant was not yet convicted and he passed away, he is not guilty,” said Hong Kimsuon, a lawyer who represents the civil parties complaining against the Khmer Rouge leaders.