Hundreds of mourners gathered on Friday for a funeral ceremony at the rural stronghold of Khmer Rouge co-founder Ieng Sary who died while on trial for genocide and war crimes.
The 87-year-old died on Thursday, cheating Cambodians of a verdict over his role in the regime and handing another blow to the UN-backed court which has been blighted by delays and cash shortages.
The outpouring of grief at the ceremony, including tears from some of the mourners, spotlighted the lingering divide between supporters and ex-members of the former regime, which wiped out nearly a quarter of the country’s population between 1975 and 1979, and those who survived its brutality.
Ieng Sary’s body was taken late on Thursday to his powerbase in northwestern Malai district, near the Thai border where he held out with fellow Khmer Rouge members after the regime fell from power until his defection in 1996.
“Between 300 and 400 villagers attended the start of the funeral this morning,” a witness told reporters by telephone, adding many cried and burned incense in his honour. He is expected to be cremated next week.
Some mourners praised the 87-year-old, even though he was accused of overseeing purges and the murder of intellectuals as foreign minister.
“He was good. He helped people with a lot of things,” supporter Meas Sam, 53, said by telephone.
“I am a bit sad that he died, but he is so old. I hope he rests in peace,” she said.
The death of Ieng Sary, who was co-founder of the Khmer Rouge and one of the regime’s few public faces, intensified fears his remaining two elderly fellow defendants may also fail to live to see justice at the embattled tribunal.
The one-time radical student, was the oldest of three former leaders on trial, and along with “Brother Number Two” Nuon Chea, 86, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 81, denied charges including war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
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.
The court has so far settled just one case, sentencing former prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, to life in jail for overseeing the deaths of some 15,000 people.