A collaboration by journalists and photographers who work as correspondents in Asia

Former Cambodian PM Returns to Politics

Former Cambodian PM Returns to Politics

by Luke Hunt

ASIAWATCH — After decades in the political wilderness, former Cambodian prime minister Pen Sovann will make his political comeback in late September when the National Assembly sits. He’ll be seated opposite politicians.

I’m looking forward to seeing their smiling faces,” he said from his small, modest office on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. “I’m very excited by the idea of seeing my old colleagues and the people I worked.

Pen Sovann was among the vanguards when Cambodian defectors who fled to Hanoi during the bloody and brutal years of the Khmer Rouge. They returned with the backing of Vietnamese troops in December 1978, pushed Po Pot into the countryside and uncovered atrocities which rated among the worst of the 20th century. Cambodia had been obliterated and the bones of more than two million people were scattered across the country.

His bravery and honesty won the hearts of many and he was installed as Prime Minister in June 1981. But he held the job only until December when a festering dispute with the Vietnamese and Le Duc Tho – Hanoi’s chief advisor to the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation (FUNSK) — ended his political career and cleared a path for Hun Sen to become prime minister.

He said contrary to the scant reports about his past, the dispute with Tho had more to do with saving Cambodian lives than his own political ambitions.

Tho, according to Pen Sovann, wanted to station 10,000 troops in each Cambodian province which would have taken the number Vietnamese soldiers stationed in Cambodia during the post-1979 occupation to more than 200,000.

The Vietnamese envoy – who once refused to share a Nobel Peace Prize with former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – also wanted Cambodian families to be moved into zones heavily infiltrated by the Khmer Rouge to help pacify locals and he wanted Cambodian land for Vietnamese production.

Relations between Tho and Pen Sovann soon deteriorated.

“I did not want Cambodians to get killed and that’s why the Vietnamese wanted to get me out,” he said through a translator.

Following Pen Sovann’s arrest Chan Sy was installed. He held the post for three years before Hun Sen took over the helm in January 1985, a position he still holds after winning the July 28 elections in controversial circumstances that included allegations of cheating made by opposition politicians.

Pen Sovann said he was taken to the first of  two purpose-built prisons in the Ha Dong district of Hanoi and was kept in a single cell, solitary confinement, in the dark with a hole for a toilet and a pipe with cold water used for showering. These were standard conditions for the prison.

He said prisoners were allowed limited amounts of rice a month, barely enough. He had rice soup for breakfast while rice for lunch and dinner was accompanied by half of a boiled egg.

“It was always dark, there was no sunlight, no windows.”

Pen Sovann said prisoners were not allowed to converse but he was astonished to discover that in both prisons there were American soldiers, up to 10 in all. This was more than seven years after the Vietnam War had ended and the last of American prisoners of war were supposed to have returned home.

“They were my neighbors. I can confirm that they were still alive when I got out in 1992. None of them got out with me,” he said.

Speculation about American MIAs remaining in Vietnam long after the war had ended persisted for decades. In their book An Enormous Crime authors Bill Hendon and Elizabeth Stewart claim there was an enormous cover-up in the US and Vietnam over hundreds of MIAs who had not been returned.

Certainly there was overwhelming evidence that some POWs were kept. The central argument was Hanoi refused to return all the prisoners because Washington had reneged on secret deal brokered by Kissinger and Tho in 1972 for more than US$3.3 billion in war reparations to be paid by the US.

The deal was never approved by Congress and events, including the first batch of POWs to be returned in Operation Homecoming, were soon overtaken by the Watergate scandal which resulted in the impeachment and resignation of US President Richard Nixon.

Following presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan refused to acknowledge the deal, its massive price tag or mounting evidence supporting claims that POWs were being held in spite of international law, which were detailed by Hendon and Stewart.

Pen Sovann said holes in the walls dividing the cells enabled prisoners to communicate and he would listen into their conversations but he could not vouch for how or when they arrived in Vietnam.

“Some spoke in Vietnamese and I could hear their conversations through holes in the wall and I could understand their conversations. One was called The General.”

“You’re the only person to ever ask about the Americans … Perhaps they were kept until they died and then their bones were sent back,” he said in regards to a US military program aimed at retrieving the remains of MIAs from old battle sites.

Pen Sovan has lived in obscurity since he was released in early 1992. He was snubbed by Cambodian officials and took years to recover from his ordeal.

At that time stories circulated that Chea Sim, a senior member of the Cambodian Communist Party – since renamed as the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – offered Pen Sovann a place back in Cambodian politics, however, Hun Sen had objected arguing such a move would upset the Hierarchy in Hanoi.

“It’s true,” Penn Sovann added. “That’s what happened.”

After years of political involvement at the village level Pen Sovann re-entered national politics as a member for the Human Rights Party (HRP). He stood for parliament in 2008 but lost. Subsequently the HRP merged with the Sam Rainsy Party to form the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Pen Sovann headed his local ticket in the province of Kampong Speu Province, just east of Phnom Penh, at last month’s poll and won with the CNRP recording its best performance yet. The opposition scored its best performance ever taking 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly amid warnings of mass demonstrations if independent investigations into alleged cheating are not carried out.

He says he has not spoken with Hun Sen.

“As a leader Hun Sen wants too much power, he is greedy about power and he likes to take power away from others,” he said. “Trouble will happen, there were many people who could not vote and there will be protests from them. Those who protest the result will be threatened and there will be a failure to uphold the law.”

For the time being Pen Sovann is content to wait out the political dramas unfolding in the capital where tanks, soldiers and arms have been deployed. He smiles, holds up a right hand finger stained by ink, indicating he had voted at the election a couple of weeks earlier and adds: “I am very happy and this is my goal. After a month out of prison I decided to go back into politics.”

It may have taken 20 years but Pen Sovann, whether Hun Sen likes it or not, has come back to his political home and his presence in the National Assembly will provide the opposition with a moral boost and give the Prime Minister and members his ruling CPP another unwanted headache.


Hang Sokunthea contributed to this article.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.