About 100 people gathered at the home of former prime minister Pen Sovann yesterday for his wake, with friends and family remembering a rare national leader who stuck by his principles even in the face of great personal cost.
Sovann, who for six months in 1981 served as Cambodia’s first prime minister after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, died at his home on Saturday night from complications related to high blood pressure, after years of battling illnesses including strokes.
He spent 10 years under house arrest in Hanoi after his ouster, and returned to Cambodia in 1992 with a reputation for standing up for his beliefs.
“He was an honest man,” said one of the mourners, Chhum Chhoeun, 70. “The Vietnamese arrested him because he did not follow their orders.
“All the people who have the same age as me around this country know about his legacy, because he struggled and devoted himself to the country, but in the end did not get anything [in return] like the other people did, including Hun Sen, Heng Samrin and Tea Banh.”
“He does not even have a good car,” the man added. “And we wonder why he did not follow the Vietnamese’s orders . . . If he followed the Vietnamese orders, he would have continued as prime minister.”
Sovann was elected as an opposition lawmaker in nearby Kampong Speu in July 2013, and opposition spokesman Yem Ponhearith said at his wake that the former premier’s legacy would not be forgotten by the party.
“When he participated in the CNRP, he provided his experiences . . . and lectured about our history and about his struggles,” Ponhearith said. “All his words will be used to educate the CNRP youth.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said by telephone that Sovann’s opposition to Vietnam’s occupation in the 1980s and to the notoriously dangerous K5 minefield along the Thai border had ruined the former premier’s legacy as a leader of the post-Khmer Rouge era.
“Dying and being born is the nature of human beings and animals, and as Buddhists we regret [his passing] and wish him to rest in peace like the other people who have passed away,” Eysan said.
“Even though he used to be a member of the CPP, he changed his nature and opposed the CPP’s ideology,” he continued. “As we know, he was unhappy with the Vietnamese soldiers’ presence to help Cambodia . . . and secondly, he opposed the K5 plan.
“This means he wanted genocide to return.”
Yet Sovann’s daughter, Pen Souna, 42, said although she had been separated from her father at the age of 6 in 1981 and did not see him until 1994, she bore no grudges and considered him a hero.
“About his loss, I have nothing to say,” Souna said. “He will always be in my heart, because he has made such a huge to contribution to the country.”