“Sister No 1” Khieu Ponnary, 83, the first wife of deceased Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, died on Tuesday evening in the former rebel stronghold of Pailin, relatives and friends said on Wednesday.
Once called the “mother” of the Khmer Rouge revolution, Khieu Ponnary had suffered from dementia for decades.
Bedridden and ailing since last year, Khieu Ponnary was being cared for at the Phnom Penh residence of her brother-in-law and former Khmer Rouge regime foreign minister Ieng Sary who is married to Ieng Thirith, Khieu Ponnary’s younger sister. She was moved to Pailin two months ago.
Ieng Thirith, who served as minister for social affairs during the Khmer Rouge regime, and Ieng Sary flew from Phnom Penh to Battambang on Wednesday morning to attend Khieu Ponnary’s funeral, scheduled to take place today, a staff member at their Phnom Penh residence said.
“She had mental illness for a long time, and she died of old age,” nephew Ieng Vuth, the first deputy governor of Pailin, said by telephone on Wednesday.
Over the last six months, Khieu Ponnary’s mental and physical condition had deteriorated until she could not move unaided and had lost all memory and ability to recognize those closest to her, he said.
“She had forgotten all about [her husband] Pol Pot,” said Ieng Vuth, adding that she will be cremated this morning in line with Khmer tradition.
Estranged from Khieu Ponnary since the 1970s, Pol Pot remarried in 1985 and had a child with his second wife, Mea Som. Pol Pot died in 1998 as government troops closed in on the last Khmer Rouge redoubt of Anlong Veng.
Khieu Ponnary was brought back to the former Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin after her nephew and chief caretaker, Srey Bunthoeun, suffered a stroke, friends and acquaintances said on Wednesday.
Incapacitated by the stroke, Srey Bunthoeun was unable to look after Khieu Ponnary, and she was sent to stay with relatives in Pailin, said a Phnom Penh neighbor, Phouk Salon, 52, who lives directly opposite Ieng Sary’s house in Chamkar Mon district.
Preparing to say farewell to one of their own, surviving leaders of the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime were gathering in Pailin on Wednesday for Khieu Ponnary’s funeral.
“I was sad when I got information through the radio about her death,” Khmer Rouge Brother No 2 Nuon Chea said on Wednesday.
“She was a Cambodian woman who I can say was very good and gentle. She was a leader who joined the struggle for a long time. She was a compatriot, a lady that we respected, who worked hard and never had happiness or fun in her life,” Nuon Chea said.
“[Khieu Ponnary] always helped her husband to work for women until the success of 1975,” he added.
A resident of Pailin along with former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, 77, is the highest-ranking surviving Khmer Rouge leader and a chief suspect for prosecution in an impending Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Ieng Sary was granted a royal amnesty after defecting to the government in 1996, and it remains to be seen if the envisioned Khmer Rouge tribunal will indict him as a suspect.
Pailin Municipal Cabinet Chief Mey Makk, who was also a former Khmer Rouge soldier, said he remembered Pol Pot’s wife as an intelligent and kindly woman.
“She was a very gentle woman with a high education,” Mey Makk said.
While former Khmer Rouge comrades were reminiscing about the life of Khieu Ponnary, genocide researchers and others were lamenting the loss of Khmer Rouge history her death represents.
Last month the UN and the Cambodian government finally agreed on the make-up of the tribunal; however, the agreement must be passed by the National Assembly before the court can be established.
“Pol Pot and Khieu Ponnary somehow crossed paths and created history,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development.
Khieu Ponnary life’s was rich in details regarding the Khmer Rouge regime, but no one had the opportunity to interview her thoroughly before she died, said Chea Vannath, noting that she had been one of Cambodia’s first female intellectuals.
The death of former Khmer Rouge regime leaders should not invalidate the need for a full accounting of their crimes and posthumous prosecution was not unknown in the French legal system, Chea Vannath added.
“Time has again taken away from the upcoming [Khmer Rouge] tribunal another piece of Cambodia genocide’s history,” Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, the country’s largest repository of information on the Khmer Rouge, wrote in an e-mail on Wednesday.
After Khieu Ponnary is cremated, her ashes will be returned to Wat Svay Pope in Phnom Penh, where Ieng Sary and Ieng Thirith have constructed a large stupa for their deceased relatives, a family member said.
Asked how she felt about the death of Khieu Ponnary, one of the early architects of the Khmer Rouge regime, Phouk Salon—who has lived opposite Ieng Sary in Phnom Penh for several years—said it was time to let “bygones be bygones.”
“She was too old. We don’t need to focus on politics. It is the sunset of [old Khmer Rouge leaders], so we don’t need to focus on this,” she said.
Students in Paris in the 1950s, Ieng Sary and Pol Pot cemented their friendship with family ties when they met and married the well-heeled and educated Khieu sisters, the daughters of a Cambodian judge.
Khieu Ponnary was the first Cambodian female to graduate with a baccalaureate from Sisowath High School in Phnom Penh.
Ponnary and younger sister, Khieu Thirith, had also moved to Paris in the 1950s, where the former studied linguistics and the latter studied English literature at the Sorbonne—majoring in Shakespeare.
Khieu Thirith married Ieng Sary in a Paris ballroom in 1951. Khieu Ponnary married Pol Pot—several years her junior—in Cambodia on July 14, Bastille Day, 1956.
The powerful in-laws formed the ideological and physical center of the Khmer Rouge movement as it swept to power in the 1970s.
But the revolution took its toll.
Once renowned for her intense intellect, Khieu Ponnary had descended into premature old age and insanity by 1975. She was fixated on fears that Vietnamese agents were trying to kill Pol Pot and herself.
Khieu Ponnary was kept under care in Phnom Penh and mostly separated from Pol Pot during the regime and the years following Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979 to oust the Khmer Rouge.
With Khieu Ponnary confined, sister Ieng Thirith became the de-facto First Lady of Democratic Kampuchea, wrote Elizabeth Becker, a US journalist who interviewed Pol Pot in 1978 and has reported on Cambodia in-depth.
Genocide experts have found little incriminating documentary evidence against Ieng Thirith, while Khieu Ponnary was already insane by the time the Khmer Rouge took power on April 17, 1975.
Youk Chhang said last year that researchers were working on interviewing Khmer Rouge doctors, nurses and others who might have been able to stitch together a clear picture of Ieng Thirith’s role during Democratic Kampuchea.
Interviewed last year at Ieng Sary’s Phnom Penh villa, Khieu Ponnary’s nephew, Srey Bunthoeun, said his aunts and uncle were not bad people.
The Khmer Rouge tribunal is a foreign demand, supported by those who want to see Cambodia descend into renewed conflict if efforts are made to arrest former leaders of the regime, Srey Bunthoeun said.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith and Matt Reed)