Born Kim Trang, the son of a village notable in a Khmer-speaking district of southern Vietnam in 1924, Ieng Sary was adopted at the age of 15 by his uncle, an elderly Buddhist lay preacher, from whom he took his new family name, after his father had died and the family had fallen on hard times. He attended the Lycee Sisowath and, in 1950, left for with a bursary from the democrat party. There he joined the PCF and became head of the Cercle Marxiste, the Marxist study group of which Pol Pot was a founding member. In , he already exhibited many of the traits which would mark his later career as a Khmer Rouge leader. Fellow-students remembered him as devious, hypocritical, dogmatic and authoritarian (Short, 2007: 81, 93). Sary returned to Cambodia in 1957, leaving the Cercle in the hands of Khieu Samphân. He worked as a history teacher in the Lycee directed by Hou Yuon while joining the Phnom Penh City organization of the PRPK and carrying out secret activities with Pol Pot (Chandler, 1993: 94). In 1960, he became an alternate member of the Standing Committee of the newly established CPK, progressing to full membership three years later.
Thereafter his fortunes were closely linked to those of Pol Pot, who was now his brother-in-law (their wives, Khieu Ponnary and Khieu Thirith, were sisters). In 1963, he went underground, joining the maquis, where he was formed by the communist Vietnamese during three years before the Khmer communists gained autonomy. After seven years in the jungle, where he eventually became CPK Zone Secretary for north-eastern Cambodia, Sary went to Beijing in 1971 where he served as CPK liaison to the Chinese – by then the Khmers Rouges’ principal backers in the war against the Lon Nol regime – and to Prince Sihanouk, who made it clear that he detested him (Osborne, 1994: 222). His real purpose was to subvert and control the GRUNK and the FUNK to ensure their support for the armed struggle (Heder and Tittemore, 2004: 75-100). In August 1975, following the Khmer Rouge victory, Sary became Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Foreign Affairs and held that position throughout the DK. His ministry (B-1) possessed a network of annexes, as Boeung Trabek (B-32), where Cambodians returning from abroad – called “to assist the CPK to rebuild the nation” – were sent. Thousands of intellectuals passed though this camp where they were supposed to be trained and ‘re-educated’ before being sent to work, but more than 90% of them were transferred to S-21 to be killed. The Foreign Ministry under Sary’s leadership also served as a transit station for provincial officials who were brought to Phnom Penh to be purged and was later nicknamed by Laurence Picq as the “death antechamber” (Picq, 1984).
Sary later claimed that because his duties frequently took him abroad, he bore no responsibility for atrocities at home. However, a corpus of evidence and many documents disprove his allegation (Heder and Tittemore, 2004: 75-100). After the Vietnamese invasion in December 1978, he fled to Thailand. In 1979, just as Pol Pot, he was sentenced to death in absentia by a political trial orchestrated by the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea. He continued for a time to serve as Khmer Rouge spokesman, liaising with China and, from 1982 onwards, taking charge of Chinese arms supplies to the movement from a base in Thailand. But his star was already waning. Apart from the loathing he inspired in Sihanouk – now nominally leader of the anti-Vietnamese resistance – and the fact that he was too closely identified with the horrors perpetrated during the Khmers Rouges’ years in power, his relations with Pol Pot cooled (Short, 2007). Unlike many of his intransigent former colleagues, Sary advocated the participation of the Khmers Rouges to the peace process ruled by the UN mission APRONUC. He continued to play a second-ranking role until 1996, when he defected to Hun Sen’s government and received a royal pardon in the name of ‘national reconciliation’. However it remains unclear if this amnesty concerns his activities during the DK or after 1994, when the Khmers Rouges were declared outlaw by the government. After 10 years living undisturbed in Phnom Penh and in his Pailin’s fief, on the Thai border, he and his wife were arrested on November 2007. They are awaiting trial before a mixed Cambodian international tribunal.
A very interesting document on Sary’s activities during the DK is the secret diary kept by one of his close collaborators, which presents a summary of speeches and documents (Ieng Sary Regime: A Diary of the Khmer Rouge Foreign Ministry, 1998)
CHANDLER, David, 2000 (4th ed.), A History of Cambodia, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
HEDER, Steve, TITTEMORE, Brian D., 2004, Seven Candidates for Prosecution. Accountability for the Crimes of the Khmer Rouge, Phnom Penh: Documentation Center of Cambodia.
KOSAL, Phat, KIERNAN Ben and SIM Sorya (translation), 1998, Ieng Sary’s Regime: a Diary of the Khmer Rouge Foreign Ministry, 1976-1979, New Haven, Connecticut: Yale Center for International and Area Studies, www.yale.edu/cgp.
OSBORNE, Milton, 1994, Sihanouk. Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.