In the 1970s, the Cambodian politician and revolutionary Pol Pot orchestrated a genocide that led to the death of an estimated 1.5 to 3 million Cambodians; a quarter of their population. Khieu Ponnary, a characteristically quiet intellectual, was his wife during this period. Together with her husband, sister (Khieu Thirith), and brother-in-law (Ieng Sary), these four individuals came to form the heart of the Khmer Rouge elite.
Born in 1920, Khieu was fortunate to be born into a very privileged background. Ponnary’s father held a position as a judge in Cambodian. However, during the Second World War, he abandoned Khieu and her family and fled to marry a Cambodian princess. Despite this, Khieu was extremely well-educated. After finishing at the Lycee Sisowath college in Phnom Penh, in 1940 she became the first ever Cambodian woman to receive a baccalaureate degree. In 1949 she then flew to Paris with her younger sister to study Khmer linguistics.
It is in Paris that Khieu Ponnary met Saloth Sar, the man that later became known as Pol Pots, or Brother Number One. It was also in Paris that her sister, named Khieu too, met and later married Ieng Sary. Upon their return to Cambodia, Khieu taught at her former school, Lycee Sisowath, while Pol taught at a new private college nearby called Chamraon Vichea. On Bastille Day 1956, the two married. Together, the four family members became increasingly involved in politics. While in Paris, Pol and Leng plotted to end the French rule of Cambodia, and once home co-founded the Khmer Rouge, the Communist Party of Kampuchea in Cambodia. This became the group responsible for the genocide.
By 1975, Khieu was suffering from chronic schizophrenia. She became convinced that the Vietnamese were attempting to assassinate her and her husband Pol. Though her sister and brother-in-law became some of the most recognisable figures of the short-lived Communist government, Khieu Ponnary remained largely unknown as she was placed in a different house from Pol while her sister took care of her.
In 1979, after the genocide ended, Pol divorced Khieu and married another younger woman named Mea Son in 1986. Amazingly, by 1996, along with her brother-in-law and sister, she was granted amnesty from prosecution by the Cambodian government. Despite medical treatment in China, she remained mentally ill and was cared for by her sister until her death in 2003.