The Story of Khieu Ponnary, Revolutionary and First Wife of Pol Pot

Anlong Veng district, Oddar Meanchey province – The first time Yong Moeun saw Khieu Ponnary was in 1967, when the woman who was to become a Khmer Rouge icon was on the run in Kratie province. She was riding a bicycle through the countryside, a slender, austere woman with intense eyes and a subdued manner that cloaked her growing mental illness.

“My husband took her to our home, and told me she was a member” of the movement that would become world-famous as the Khmer Rouge, Yong Moeun recalls. He said Khieu Ponnary had fled Phnom Penh to avoid arrest.”

The women lived together for a month, but didn’t exchange much information. It was a dangerous time for Cambodian revolutionaries, who had to work in the shadows to avoid arrest.

Everyone in the movement understood that the less you knew about a fellow revolutionary, the less you could reveal if you were ever caught and interrogated.

But Yong Moeun, who was herself pretending to be a simple rice farmer, could see that Khieu Ponnary was an educated woman, and she was impressed.

“She was gentle, nice, and the first woman in Cambodia to receive such a high education,” Yong Moeun recalls. “Before she left, she advised me to please be careful, to work for the movement and to keep its secrets.”

It would be years before the world learned much about Khieu Ponnary, the wife of Saloth Sar. He is better known today as Pol Pot or Brother Number One, the leader of the Khmer Rouge’s horrendous experiment in agrarian utopia.

Khieu Ponnary is the sister of Khieu Thirith, who married Ieng Sary, one of Pol Pot’s top lieutenants. In the 1960s and 1970s, the foursome formed the epicenter of the Khmer Rouge elite, the ideological and logistical heart of the revolutionary movement.

In 1978, Khieu Ponnary was introduced to a cheering crowd as “the mother of the [Khmer Rouge] revolution.” She disappeared soon after that, reportedly into a mental institution in Beijing.

Today she is 81 years old. She lives in Ieng Sary’s Phnom Penh home, where she recognizes no one around her.

She doesn’t know Pol Pot is dead. She isn’t aware that he married again, in 1985, and had a child from that marriage. She doesn’t remember the Khmer Rouge, or that more than million people died during its disastrous reign.

“She knows nothing,” Ieng Sary said recently. “Even me she does not remember. I pity her very much, but I don’t know how to help her, as she has a disease which is difficult to cure.”

Revelations about Khieu Ponnary’s madness raise tantalizing questions. Those who knew her say that she was mentally ill as far back as the 1960s. In her illness, she fixated on the Vietnamese as a terrifying threat, complaining constantly to Pol Pot that they were trying to kill her, him and all Cambodians.

It’s hard to know the extent to which her mania affected her husband. Those who were there say he loved her, and was saddened by her disease. As she grew worse she was increasingly kept away from him, so she wouldn’t disturb him.

But without question, the central government of Democratic Kampuchea was imbued with a hatred and fear of the Vietnamese that grew steadily worse over time.

Would Pol Pot have feared the Vietnamese if his wife hadn’t been ill? Without a doubt. Did her ravings exacerbate the situation,  as the years passed and the Khmer Rouge leadership grew more stressed and isolated?

He is dead, and she cannot say.

The revolutionary Khieu sisters, Ponnary and Thirith, were the daughters of a Cambodian judge who abandoned his family during World War II, when he ran off to Battambang with a member of the royal family.

“This action may have hardened the sisters’ attitudes towards the raffish Cambodian elite,” writes David Chandler in “Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot.”

Something certainly motivated them to excel. Khieu Ponnary was the first female in Cambodian history to graduate from high school, earning a baccalaureate degree from the Lycee Sisowath.

The sisters continued their education in Paris, where Khieu Thirith specialized in Shakespeare and Khieu Ponnary studied Khmer linguistics. She was 31 years old when she met the 23-year-old Saloth Sar, perhaps at Thirith’s Paris wedding to Ieng Sary in 1951.

They were an unlikely pair, as Cambodian men rarely married older women and upper-class females would not normally wed young men with so few prospects.

But marry they did in 1956, and observers say the union appeared to be a happy one, although some did not know what to make of the politically intense Ponnary, who “wore no jewelry or makeup, cut her hair in an old-fashioned Chinese style, and preferred somber clothes,” Chandler writes.

“Many Cambodians found her hard to fathom. They called her ‘the old virgin’ behind her back,” he says.

Yet in the years after their return to Cambodia, Khieu Ponnary was a popular and well-respected teacher, as was Saloth Sar. Until 1963, they lived quietly in Phnom Penh, working secretly to build a Communist organization.

She taught Cambodian literature at the Lycee Sisowath; he taught French, history, geography, and civics at a new private college called Chamraon Vichea.

In March of 1963, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s government began to move against the nascent Communist party, and the nucleus of what would become the Khmer Rouge began to fade into the jungle.

Yong Moeun did not see Khieu Ponnary again until 1970, when the two women were reunited at the Khmer Rouge headquarters in Antorng Meas, Ratanakkiri province.

Yong Moeun had walked for a month to get there, along with eight other revolutionaries. “We walked through the rice fields and the jungle,” she remembers. “We did not dare travel through the villages, or we would have been arrested.”

By then Saloth Sar had become supreme leader of the movement. He was questioning the new arrivals on the situation in Kratie, trying to gauge the depth of his support, when Khieu Ponnary came in and sat by his side.

It was only then that Yong Moeun learned that her diffident house guest was Pol Pot’s wife. By 1970, he was the leader of a growing revolutionary movement that was solidifying control across the Cambodian countryside, and his wife was painfully and publicly losing her grip on reality.

Yong Moeun remembers a security guard putting a glass of water on the table for Brother Number One to drink. Khieu Ponnary abruptly began to scream.

“She shouted at Pol Pot not to drink it, because the Vietnamese put poison in it,” recalled Yong Moeun. “Then she took it from his hand, and brought him another one.”

Pol Pot said nothing, according to Yong Moeun. But to this day, she remembers the look of pity on his face. “She loved him very much, and Pol Pot loved her,” Yong Moeun said.

Even when Khieu Ponnary’s illness became severe, “she never used bad words to her husband, or cursed him,” Yong Moeun said.

“When she was very sick, she would always shout that the Vietnamese troops were coming and they were going to kill us.” At such times, she worried terribly about her husband, and asked anxiously: “Where is Saloth Sar?”

Yong Moeun spent many years in close proximity to Pol Pot, serving as his cook except for the period between 1976 and 1984, when she was sent to China where her husband, Pich Chheang, served as the Khmer Rouge ambassador to China.

It was not always an easy job. Pol Pot was plagued periodically with gastric problems, and often suspected he was being poisoned.

She said Pol Pot appreciated her administrative abilities, naming her deputy ambassador while she was in China, but above all trusted her cooking, which gave him a good appetite.

As an intimate in the household, he came to depend on her for help when his wife’s illness intensified.

“She hated the Vietnamese very much, and I don’t know why,” Yong Moeun recalled. “She had traveled with her husband to China via Vietnam, and I don’t know whether something happened to her and Pol Pot during that journey.”

Periodically, Khieu Ponnary would become agitated and restless, and Pol Pot would turn to Yong Moeun. “When she was seriously ill, Pol Pot asked me to help her,” she said. “He allowed her to stay with me every night, because she would wake him up many times each night.”

Pol Pot had trouble sleeping in general, Yong Moeun said, but when his wife was going through one of her crisis periods, he could not sleep at all. Finally, he would not allow her near him when she was disturbed, but entrusted Yong Moeun with her care.

“When she stayed with me, she got up during the night and would wake me up, crying, ‘Comrade! Get up! The Vietnamese troops are surrounding us, and they are going to kill us!’”

Yong Moeun said Khieu Ponnary would sometimes fret that the Vietnamese were coming to separate her from her husband. She said it happened frequently, but was interspersed with lucid intervals, when Khieu Ponnary could function.

During the bad times, Khieu Ponnary never complained of headaches or other woes. “She just kept silent,” Yong Moeun said. “She wouldn’t talk to people she didn’t like. She wouldn’t eat, she wouldn’t bathe, and she wouldn’t sleep.”

Yong Moeun did what she could to cheer Khieu Ponnary. She knew the older woman loved children, and that a bout with uterine cancer in the 1950s had left her unable to conceive.

“So I would gather children in schools for her to play with. She liked children a lot, and would talk and play with them,” Yong Moeun said.

In 1972, Pol Pot appointed Khieu Ponnary to work on propaganda and education as president of the Democratic Kampuchea Women’s Association. Yong Moeun was assigned to work with her, and for three years they traveled the country, from Kompong Cham to Preah Vihear.

Although her illness was growing visibly worse, Khieu Ponnary was able to do her job competently for several years, Yong Moeun said.

“When we came back from the field, she and I reported directly to Pol Pot about the peoples’ living conditions, their education, and their strong belief in the movement,” Yong Moeun said. “She was very good at reporting. She was strict and firm.”

But by 1975, when the Khmer Rouge finally took over Phnom Penh, Khieu Ponnary was too ill to work, Yong Moeun said.

Khieu Ponnary remained near her husband throughout the four years of the Khmer Rouge regime, but after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 she was taken to Chanburi province in Thailand, where she was housed at a Khmer Rouge facility.

“She was not allowed to stay with him any more, because he was busy with his work, trying to fight the Vietnamese and prevent their troops from moving near his troops along the border,” Yong Moeun said.

“She was kept away to prevent her from disturbing him, because her illness was so much worse.”

The two women did not meet again until 1990, in the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Malai. “She still remembered me, and asked about my daughter Pich, who she had named,” Yong Moeun said.

Yong Moeun explained that Pich had starved to death during the Vietnamese invasion. Khieu Ponnary did not appear to know that Pol Pot had remarried in 1985, and asked anxiously about him.

“She asked me where he was, and if I’d seen him. She wanted to know if he was sick,” said Yong Moeun, who tried to deflect the conversation, but to no avail.

“Every question she raised was about her husband, and she repeated the questions again and again. She did not ask about the resistance. She just wanted to know about her husband.”

Yong Moeun said she felt overcome with pity for Khieu Ponnary and talked to her at length, but could think of no way to help her. Yong Moeun did not cook for Pol Pot after 1990, and has not seen Khieu Ponnary since, she said.

Today Yong Moeun lives quietly in Anlong Veng, cooking for her family and helping care for her grandchildren. Her husband is a general with the Ministry of Defense, but she prefers to stay at home.

Even in former Khmer Rouge country, she says society is too corrupt for her to deal with, and that she is better off not trying.

As for Khieu Ponnary, she has lived for years with Ieng Sary, her brother-in-law. He said recently he shares responsibility for her care with her nephew, who is like a son to her.

“Her mental illness was already serious in 1970,” Ieng Sary said. “She would ignore people directly in front of her. She just sat, quiet and lonely.”

(Additional reporting by Jody McPhillips)

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