This bizarre state of affairs says far more about the nature of Cambodia's government than it does about Ieng Sary, 67, who served as foreign minister to the genocidal Khmer Rouge government which ruled the country from 1975 to 1979, killing some two million people.
Last week, the government in Phnom Penh triumphantly announced Ieng Sary's defection, alongside a number of other senior Khmer Rouge officers. This was obliquely confirmed by the guerrilla forces whose radio station denounced him for embezzling pounds 10m and described him as a traitor.
Following news of his defection, the First Prime Minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, said that as the death penalty had been abolished, Ieng Sary would have to be jailed. However Hun Sen, the Second Prime Minister, himself a former Khmer Rouge fighter, praised Ieng Sary for saving tens of thousands of lives by defecting.
As ever, Hun Sen's warm welcome for Ieng Sary looks set to prevail over Prince Ranariddh's wishes. The Second Prime Minister is far more powerful than his supposed leader. He may also be seeking to form an alliance in the forthcoming elections to fight both the First Prime Minister's more popular party and the struggling, but highly popular, opposition party led by Sam Rainsy, a former finance minister.
The mystery of Cambodian politics is that no one seems powerful enough to prevent the return of a mass murderer to the political mainstream. Indeed, Ieng Sary's planned return is not even being seen in these terms, except by Sam Rainsy, who is just about keeping his head above water in the face of threats to outlaw him.
Some reports have mistakenly described Ieng Sary as "Brother No. 2", ranking him second in line to the infamous Pol Pot. However this is incorrect, although he was part of the Khmer Rouge core leadership and played a key role in luring intellectuals back to Cambodia after 1975 and in keeping an eye on King Sihanouk during his exile in China.
He is said to be a charismatic leader with an ability to charm, obscuring the ruthless streak which characterises the Khmer Rouge leadership. His defection provides yet more evidence that the guerrillas are seriously split, although reports of a division on the lines of hardliners and reconcilers seems wide of the mark. Much of the dissension in the ranks is over spoils from the Khmer Rouge's windfall from drugs trafficking and illegal gems trading.
Ieng Sary has yet to appear in public, but some fellow defectors have announced his political intentions. The govern- ment, in the shape of Ok Serei Sopheak, a senior interior ministry official, said "if it is the will of the people" Ieng Sary could participate in the elections.Reuse content