SEX IN DEPTH Cell swingers in Cambodia
By William Sparrow
BANGKOK - Considering the glacial pace of legal wrangling, domestic
indifference and rampant allegations of corruption and mismanagement, some
might say it's about time some sex came up at the Khmer Rouge tribunal now
under way in the Kingdom of Cambodia.
The ultra-Maoist group's former supremo and "Brother No 1", Pol Pot, died in
1998 in a hidden jungle redoubt along the Thai border. His infamous military
doyen Ta Mok, dubbed "The Butcher" by the Western press, passed away
suspiciously in a Phnom Penh military hospital in 2006. With the most atrocious
and eye-catching suspects out of the picture, and the rest of the leadership
clique enjoying decades of leisure and, in one case, even a royal pardon, the
United Nations-sponsored tribunal has
been a stop-start, anticlimactic affair of official rhetoric and obtuse
For journalists embedded in the turgid trial process it's been a long, boring
And so it was on February 25 that local media reported former Khmer Rouge
"Brother No 3" 82-year-old Ieng Sary's request that the court grant conjugal
visits with his wife - and fellow court detainee - Khieu Thirith. In the
history of international justice dating back to the Nuremberg Trials of the
late 1940s, this must surely be the only time two suspects both charged with
atrocity crimes and in custody have asked for a little tete-a-tete together.
Remember, too, the elderly couples' autumn incarceration, and any potential
jail-cell rendezvous, are all courtesy of the UN, the taxpayers of its
contributing member states, and the millions of Cambodians victimized by the
In explanation for the plaintive plea, The Cambodia Daily, a Phnom Penh-based
media NGO, reported Ieng Sary's lawyer Ang Udom as saying the octogenarian
"misses his wife". "He wants to see her, she wants to see him ... why does the
tribunal prevent them from seeing each other?" the paper quoted Ang Udom as
To add irony to insult, Sary and Thirith, who was the Khmer Rouge's social
affairs minister, both worked setting policy for the Khmer Rouge, a significant
plank of which was to dismantle the traditional family structure. Husbands,
wives and children were separated into separate gender-based work collectives.
Marriages were routinely forced on individuals simply for reproduction to
support a productive workforce.
Kalyanee Mam wrote in The Endurance of the Cambodian Family Under the Khmer
Rouge Regime: An Oral History that "Marriages were usually forced upon
individuals for reproductive purposes only, since most couples who were married
were soon after separated from each other and rarely met afterwards. After
reproduction was achieved, it was not important for couples to remain together,
since their time and energy were required on the work field."
Almost 30 years have passed since the end of the Khmer Rouge's horrific rule
from 1975-1979 during which as many one in five Cambodians were killed. Many
more were tortured or died of disease or starvation in the forced labor camps
of agriculture collectives in which the entire population was enslaved.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, established by a 2001 law
and convened in 2006, was initially scheduled to last three years and cost
$56.3 million, with the UN providing $43 million and Cambodia's government
$13.3 million. But money problems have plagued the court, and Agence France
Presse reported recently that the court was seeking another $114 million from
international donors to keep it running until 2011. The majority of Cambodians
live on less than $1 per day.
Former foreign minister Ieng Sary, and former social affairs minister Thirith,
75, are in custody alongside Khieu Samphan, 76, the former head of state,
"Brother No 2" Nuon Chea and Duch, the warden of the notorious torture center
known as S-21, or Tuol Sleng. They are being held separately in eight privately
housed single-room cells in a detention facility on the same property as the
courtroom on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. They all deny charges of war crimes
or crimes against humanity.
Sary is suspected of undertaking and facilitating murders as well as planning
and coordinating Khmer Rouge policies of forcible transfer, forced labor and
illegal killings. Thirith was allegedly one of the planners who directed the
widespread purges and the killings of members within the Ministry of Social
Affairs. Both have claimed they are innocent.
The mere thought of a request for conjugal visits between Sary and Thirith is a
shocking insult to Cambodians. However, in another universe it might be
touching. The couple met during their university days in Phnom Penh where they
surely double-dated with fellow classmates Pol Pot and his future wife Khieu
Ponnary, Thirith's sister. They were married in the summer of 1951 in Paris,
where Sary had a flat in the Latin Quarter and a coterie of radical student
friends, many of whom were expatriate Cambodian communists. According to
historian Ben Kiernan, Thirith was a "Shakespeare studies major".
Sary rose to power alongside his chum Pol Pot and was ultimately deputy prime
minister of Democratic Kampuchea, as the Khmer Rouge named the country. After
their 1979 ouster, and a Hanoi-backed tribunal of that year which sentenced
Sary to death in absentia, the Khmer Rouge fought a guerrilla war against the
government into the 1990s. Sary became the first senior Khmer Rouge leader to
defect to the government in 1996. At the behest of Prime Minister Hun Sen, King
Norodom Sihanouk issued a royal pardon to Sary later that year and granted him
semi-autonomous status in the gem and timber rich municipality of Pailin, where
his son is now governor. Sary and Thirith have lived in an opulent Phnom Penh
villa for many years.
Sary's amnesty was a stumbling block in the lengthy negotiations between the
Cambodian government and the UN and served to stall its progress.
Even with recent progress, decades of delays have created apathy among the
Cambodian populace. As Khmer Rouge survivor and famous painter Vann Nath told
an Asia Times Online staffer in November 2007, "It has taken too long for the
trial. It has dragged on for years and now as the delays of the trial keep
going there will be more ways to defend the suspects - and more delays."
Nath, who was one of only a handful of survivors of S-21, points out that the
leaders in custody certainly have better living conditions than those who
suffered at their hands. "They're secure, they have mattresses, any food they
want, special doctors," he said. "They have better luck than most Cambodians."
If Sary's luck continues he might just get his conjugal visits. But he's has
been hospitalized three times with heart problems since his arrest in December
2007, and it's doubtful the tender reunion of these two war crimes suspects
would be exceedingly risque (although Americans may remember the Seinfeld
episode in which character George Costanza reckoned conjugal visits to be the
best sex possible).
Or, perhaps, the scales of justice are tipping in mysterious ways. As
far-fetched a scenario as it may be, should Sary go out with a bang in some
Khmer Rouge tribunal jail cell it would certainly spark interest in what has
been an otherwise impotent process.
William Sparrow has been an occasional contributor to Asia Times Online
and now joins Asia Times Online with a weekly column. Sparrow is editor in
chief of Asian
Sex Gazetteand has reported on sex in Asia for over five
years. To contact him send question or comments to Letters@atimes.com.