Khmer Rouge leader Ieng Sary had US$20m in Hong Kong account

Victims of the Khmer Rouge may have lost the chance to tap into the hidden wealth of one of the regime's top leaders who died this month

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 March, 2013, 2:19pm

The death of Ieng Sary - one of three Khmer Rouge leaders accused of genocide and war crimes before a tribunal in Phnom Penh - may have also killed off attempts by victims and their families to recover his assets and hidden wealth, including a bank account in Hong Kong.

It is thought that at one stage US$20 million was in the account.

Ieng Sary died of a heart attack, aged 87, in a Phnom Penh hospital earlier this month.

He was one of supreme leader Pol Pot's inner circle, ranked as "Brother No 3" in the regime. He and the two remaining defendants -Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were on trial for genocide at the UN-backed war crimes tribunal.

Among the draconian policies that reduced Cambodia to year zero, was the abolition of money, education and normal family life in the 1970s. Many years later, however, a very different Ieng Sary emerged to enjoy the good life in the capital Phnom Penh from 1996 until his arrest in 2007.

Prime Minister Hun Sen had accepted a deal with Ieng Sary, whose Pailin/Phnom Malai faction of 3,000 Khmer Rouge guerillas split with Pol Pot in 1996, including an amnesty that brought an end to the long-festering insurgency by 1999.

In return, Ieng Sary was allowed to enjoy an elite lifestyle in Phnom Penh, dining out at some of the capital's finest restaurants along the banks of the Mekong, travelling in a Toyota Land Cruiser and acquiring a spacious mansion valued at an estimated US$150,000. According to municipal records, the house is registered in the name of his daughter, Ieng Vichida.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, said he had been investigating Ieng Sary's wealth since the 1990s. "Ieng Sary possessed an extraordinary amount of wealth that could have alleviated the suffering of many Cambodian genocide victims. In practical terms, he possessed enough wealth to build a national mental health centre for the victims."

Youk Chhang says "the operating costs to meet the needs of millions of survivors suffering from trauma would be just under US$2 million per year".

China funnelled massive amounts of aid to rebuild the battered Khmer Rouge army routed by a Vietnamese invasion in 1979.

Ieng Sary, as foreign minister, was sent to Beijing to sign deals and supervise the supply of Chinese arms, equipment and funds to launch a new guerilla war. The documentation centre interviewed a former Khmer Rouge finance official, known as Comrade Rith, who confirmed there was a Hong Kong bank account in the name of Ieng Sary, when he was based near the Thai border in the 1980s. Rith claimed US$20 million was in the account at the time of the Khmer Rouge split.

Millions flowed through the Hong Kong account of Ieng Sary, who in 1982 was appointed finance minister for the Khmer Rouge-dominated government-in-exile, known as the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea.

Former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew said in his memoirs that total Chinese aid to the Khmer Rouge during that time was more than US$1 billion.

Even as Chinese aid dried up in the early 1990s, more opportunities opened up for Ieng Sary. The Khmer Rouge captured the gem-rich district of Pailin in 1989. Ieng and Khmer Rouge general Ee Chhean, now the governor of Pailin, were alleged to have benefited from deals with Thai mining firms and gem dealers.

Combined with illegal timber exports, total Khmer Rouge smuggling operations were valued at US$100 million a year, according to one British economist who worked for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, which oversaw the return of normalcy to the country in the early 1990s.

"Ieng Sary's family owns a large corn-processing factory in the province and his son, Ieng Vuth, owns a 40-room hotel in Pailin," Kong Duong, a Pailin provincial official told the Cambodia Daily recently.

Many victims who are officially recognised by the tribunal have urged the court to endorse reparations, including the redistribution of Ieng Sary's estate. In 2009 and 2010, lawyers requested an investigation of these assets but judges rejected the move.

An international lawyer representing civil parties, Elizabeth Simmoneau Fort, said: "Now Ieng Sary is dead. He has not been convicted and is presumed innocent. That means that no civil action can be pursued at the court."

Many victims have urged the Cambodian government to initiate proceedings to seize the alleged ill-gotten gains.