I began the day with the news that Mam Sonando had been released, which segued smack dab into the news that 87 year old Khmer Rouge Tribunal defendant Ieng Sary had died. A busy day. A day that can be defined as both productive and profoundly sweaty, in a way that only Cambodia in March can really be.
The reaction here in Phnom Penh has been what can only be described as “meh” to Ieng Sary’s death. He was not beloved, but I am not sure he permeated the public consciousness enough circa-2013 to be adequately described as “reviled” either.
There is no mass celebration of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, and if there are mourners, they are keeping quiet. Sary had lived free up in a palatial and expansive Phnom Penh mansion up until 2007 with his equally guilty wife Ieng Thirith, when he was finally arrested and put on trial at the ECCC. That is where he’s stayed ever since.
He’s kept mostly silent and deeply displeased looking while sitting in the chambers, while being fed decent food and accessing better health care than the vast majority of the Cambodians who the genocidal regime he supported committed to poverty or death. On the whole, it has not been such a bad deal for him: wheeled to the court somewhat like a piece of malevolent and silently objecting furniture when things are in session, kept with (as I have heard) a television and a bed when he is not.
And now he is dead. The journalists circle and wring their hands and analyze, just as I am doing now, just as we will do tonight at the bar. We make it out to be a big deal. The Cambodians I know, on the other hand — well informed and intelligent — say “He was old. And who cares about the court?”
Perhaps this is a better punishment for him than a conviction and a tribunal: he has been consigned to the dustbin, and the people are mostly disinterested in thinking about him. He and his cronies cannot make them do that anymore.
The body was hustled out of the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital around 2:30 PM, curiously enough, just when all the journalists had gathered for a press conference. Perhaps they wanted us to see that he was really dead, although the remarkable haste of the van carrying his remains indicated they didn’t want us to be able to do much poking-around of the body, either.
Sary has been released to his family who are planning to cremate him up in Malaii District (cue the bonfire cracks from the peanut gallery) which I admittedly had not actually heard of before today, a sad admission that I need to spend more time staring intently at a map of Cambodia.
Some journalists are planning to go up to crash the party, but I think I’d rather stick around to see Mam Sonando walk out of Pray Sar prison instead.
They say they are sending a fleet of 1,000 tuk tuks to greet him as he walks: I’ll believe it when I see it, but the idea of a shoal of welcoming and freedom living public transportation specialists is awfully appealing.
Here’s my news story:
PHNOM PENH – Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary has died at the age of 87, representatives from the Extraordinary Chambers of the Court of Cambodia confirmed on March 14 — cutting short legal efforts to prosecute Sary for war crimes committed during the time of the Cambodian genocide.
ECCC spokesperson Lars Olsen confirmed that Sary passed away at 8:45 AM local time in Phnom Penh at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital.
Co-prosecutor Chea Leang said in a hospital press conference that the octogenarians cause of death was “irreversible cardiac failure.” No autopsy will take place, and hospital authorities have released the body to Sary’s family for funeral services.
Money quote for me: “When we talk about legacy, really we’re talking about the end of impunity in Cambodia, where people in power commit crimes against members of the population,” said Smith. (William Smith, one of the co-prosecutors).
“We can’t turn back the hands of time and make the accused young again, so they can avoid death from natural causes.”