Hundreds of mourners massed on Thursday ahead of the cremation of a co-founder of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, highlighting the stark divide between supporters and victims of the brutal communist regime.
Former Khmer Rouge foreign minister Ieng Sary, 87, died last week while on trial for war crimes and genocide, cheating Cambodians of a verdict over his role in the regime’s 1975-1979 reign of terror.
About 500 people – including relatives, former Khmer Rouge fighters and chanting monks – gathered for a ceremony on Thursday morning, with more people expected to attend the cremation at about 6.00pm.
Many people in the crowd that gathered in Ieng Sary’s hometown of Malai close to the Thai border wore black and white mourning dress, and black ribbons pinned to their chests.
“He is a hero for the people of Malai,” said former Khmer Rouge cadre Long Run, 78, describing the Khmer Rouge co-founder as a “patriot” who defended the country from Vietnamese invaders.
“I was shocked when I heard he was dead. We’re sorry that we lost him now,” he told reporters as he paid his respects at Ieng Sary’s home in Malai, a small bustling town where ex-Khmer Rouge cadres sell goods in a local market.
Ieng Sary’s body was returned a week ago to his powerbase in the remote northwestern border area where he held out with fellow Khmer Rouge members after the regime fell from power until his defection in 1996.
Monks have held religious rites each day as part of a week-long funeral, and a crematory has been built outside the family home.
The death of Ieng Sary, one of the regime’s few public faces, intensified fears his remaining two elderly fellow co-defendants may also die before verdicts can be reached in their trial, which began in June 2011.
“Justice for the victims is fading little by little,” said Bou Meng, 72, one of a handful of people to survive incarceration at the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng prison in the capital Phnom Penh.
He reacted angrily to the mourning for Ieng Sary in his hometown.
“Regarding him as a hero is totally wrong,” Bou Meng said. “He is a killer.”
Several hundred villagers attended a funeral ceremony last Friday with some crying, according to witnesses, even though Ieng Sary was accused of overseeing purges and the murder of intellectuals as foreign minister.
“Although people from outside this area accused him of genocide, he did good things for the poor people here,” former Khmer Rouge cadre Nhem Preuong, 58, said on the eve of the cremation.
“I regard him as my parent,” he added.
The one-time radical student was the oldest of three former leaders on trial, along with “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, 86, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 81.
All have denied charges including war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
Ieng Sary’s wife Ieng Thirith, the regime’s former social affairs minister, was supposed to be in the dock with them, but she was freed in September after being diagnosed with dementia and deemed unfit for trial.
It was unclear whether she would attend the cremation.
Led by “Brother Number One” Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge killed an estimated two million Cambodians through starvation, overwork or execution in a bid to create an agrarian utopia.
So far the UN-backed court – which has been dogged by allegations of political meddling and frequent funding problems – has achieved just one conviction, sentencing a former Khmer Rouge prison chief to life in jail.
“The court must speed up the trial because the defendants and the survivors are getting older now,” said Bou Meng. “I deserve some kind of justice while I’m still alive.”