Still looking for Utopia

After a tumultuous political career, Cambodia’s former prime minister Pen Sovann has no plans to leave behind the scene he has loved for more than five decades

Marc Eberle
August 1, 2009

I see him sitting at the table when we enter the compound. Only when he gets up to greet us do I realise that he is a fragile man, his posture slightly bent, his walk insecure. But his voice and gaze are steady as he greets us with a firm handshake. He assures us that he turned 73 this April and mockingly refers to his dyed black hair as the source of his youthful looks.

His demeanour as well as his modest home – a traditional Khmer wooden house on stilts next to a pond – would never lead anybody to assume that Pen Sovann was Cambodia’s first prime minister after the fall of the Khmer Rouge (KR) regime. If it weren’t for the few photographs that line the walls of the pavilion, there would be no indication that he once fought against Pol Pot as president and founding member of the Kampuchean United Front for Construction and Defence, or that he helped rescue his country from total collapse.

Shortly before we leave Pen says that this land is all he owns and that he has laid his anger and the ghosts of the past to rest. Yet, when I ask him about his take on current affairs within the political arena he becomes agitated. “The government leaves me alone, but I am unhappy that Cambodia is in such a negative state and its people become poorer and poorer, because the leaders only serve the interests of outside powers,” he says.

Throughout the interview he is surprisingly outspoken and makes clear that the current flood of defamation suits is of no concern to him: “I was the leader that ousted the KR and saved the country from its genocidal regime, so the people are thankful to me. Nevertheless, Hun Sen is angry with me. But I am not angry with him and I don’t mind him and his words anymore.”

Back in 1978, when his renegade group of KR counter-revolutionary fighters were preparing to launch their offensive against the KR, Pen calculated that with 25 battalions, the KR were too strong a force to take on: “We knew we couldn’t win against the KR so I asked the Vietnamese government to assist and support us.

“When I formed the [subsequent Cambodian] government [in 1981], they gave me freedom to choose who I wanted. But when it came to Hun Sen they directed me to make him foreign minister, at the behest of Le Duc Tho, who was a member of the standing committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party.

“Hun Sen was only 25 years old then. In fact he was the youngest leading member of the party and I think that’s why the Vietnamese assigned him. It was similar to the French choosing Sihanouk to become King [at the age of 19].”

From 1979 until 1981 Pen served as president of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea and became prime minister and defence minister in 1981.

He claims, however, that he had no real power in that position. “We had no right to decide on national affairs,” he says. “Everything was under the control of Hanoi. For example, during the party congress all documents and reports related to policy were prepared by Hanoi in Vietnamese and I was ordered to translate them into Khmer.

“The Cambodian constitution that was adopted on June 1, 1981, was sent to Vietnam for review before it was signed. I want to make it clear that the Vietnamese government helped Cambodia and liberated us, and we have to thank them, but we have to resist the colonisation of Cambodia.”

When Pen was ordered to send more Cambodian troops to the Thai border to lay mines as part of the K5 project, he refused. After only six months as acting PM, Pen fell from grace and was jailed.

“Because I opposed the Vietnamese colonisation of Cambodia, I was accused of being a traitor. In 1982, I began a jail term of 10 years and 52 days in Hanoi,” he says.

For the first six years he was kept in a small cell without any daylight and without anybody to talk to. I ask him what he did in order to stay sane, but he has no wish to talk about that difficult time.

Later he remarks that his wife divorced him during his time in prison and that he has never seen her since.

Pen’s involvement in Cambodia’s political evolution began in 1950 when he joined the anti-colonial Khmer Issarak: “We were busy fighting against the French when I first met Ta Mok [Chhit Choeun]. He was a very polite man. He had just left the monkhood and still behaved like a religious man. I decided there and then to be loyal to him and stay with him.”

Towards the end of 1953 several Cambodian students returned from France including Saloth Sar, who would later call himself Pol Pot, Ieng Sary, Ieng Thirith and Khieu Samphan – the people who would form the nucleus of the KR leadership.

“Even though they sympathised with some of the Issarak policies, they didn’t want to join the movement. They wanted to establish their own,” remembers Pen. “I first met Saloth Sar on Dec 5, 1953, when I was the secretary and bodyguard for Ta Mok.Saloth Sar came to Kampot to find out how the Issarak movement was organised.”

During the meeting Pen was responsible for security and serving food to the two leaders, but was not allowed to talk to them. He recalls that after the meeting Saloth Sar went east and met with Tou Samouth in Kompong Cham province. Tou Samouth was the founder of the Kampuchea People’s Revolution Party (KPRP), one political faction of the Issarak. Pen maintains that Saloth Sar was only Samouth’s secretary. He doesn’t mention Samouth as revolutionary mentor and Saloth Sar as his protégé. What is certain is that under Samouth, Saloth Sar and the other returnees from Paris gained valuable experience.

In the face of increasing repression from Sihanouk’s government, the KPRP held a secret meeting at the railway station in Phnom Penh in 1960. Samouth, who still advocated cooperation with Sihanouk, was elected general secretary. Saloth Sar was named as third in the Party’s hierarchy behind Samouth and Nuon Chea.

Then, on May 27, 1963 Tou Samouth was assassinated and the party voted Saloth Sar as the new president. Until today it is not clear exactly how Samouth disappeared, but Pen claims that it was Saloth Sar who killed him. Later that year Saloth Sar dissolved the KPRP, cut ties with Vietnam and secured the backing of China.

“Tou Samouth was killed secretly. At 7am on May 27, 1963 he went to Toul Kork market and was never seen again. We never found his body, but the people living around the market reported that they saw him being put into a car. Until today no one knows where and how he was killed,” he says.

In one of the last interviews before his death, Pol Pot stated that Samouth had been arrested by Lon Nol’s men, interrogated and killed. “If Tou Samouth had talked, I would have been arrested. He was killed at Stung Meanchey pagoda. We loved each other,” Pol Pot said. Pen refutes this version of events.

I didn’t want to be part of a revolution that didn’t allow anything anymore.”

Pen Sovann

Pen returned to Cambodia in 1970, after 15 years of military training in Vietnam. He was put in charge of propaganda at the guerilla movement’s radio channel. In August 1970, Ieng Sary and other delegates visited their installation. “At the time I was a member of the KR, but they accused me of opposing Angkar [the KR’s ruling authority],” he says. “They had a policy called the 10-point charter that sought to abolish private property, class discrimination, the free market, money, religion, culture, royalty, even cities. How could we revolutionise the country if the revolution banned everything? I didn’t want to be part of a revolution that didn’t allow anything anymore. They called it ‘Ak thun’. ‘Ak’ means without and ‘thun’ means property. To my understanding this term meant ‘nothing’. I didn’t want to fight to abolish everything.”

Many of these doctrines stemmed directly from Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution. In their deluded arrogance the KR chose to bypass the preliminary stages of Mao’s theories, resulting in the deaths of 1.5m people – a recent publication claims as many as 3m died. The KR hoped to achieve their revolutionary goals in one fell swoop.

“Saloth Sar had Mao’s book. He extracted Mao’s doctrines and translated them. I saw documents written by Saloth Sar. One of them was entitled: ‘The Old Man with the Red Bones’,” he says.

Red bones referred to the Maoist doctrines introduced to Cambodia by the KR. A second one was entitled: ‘Fighting the Enemy from Within’. These documents were instrumental in formulating the KR’s policies and were used by the standing committee to ‘educate’ the population.

Many observers say the KR failed towards the end because they killed their own people, but Pen maintains they didn’t fail in 1979: “I think they had already failed in 1972 when they had internal conflicts that led to killings within the ranks. Moreover, they didn’t know how to carry out a communist revolution. Some people understood that, and I understood that too. That’s why I prepared to fight against the KR and start a Khmer counter-revolution.”

After a short stint at the radio station in Rattanakiri, Pen left Cambodia for Vietnam once more: “In 1974 Ieng Sary wanted to kill me because I didn’t agree with their policies. Word was out that they wanted to move me to another unit. I was sure that this meant death because all people who had been asked to move before had never returned. It was now my turn, but I refused to be moved and escaped instead.” On Jan 3, 1979, Pen re-established the KPRP.

After his release from prison in 1992 the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) assigned him to be the CPP adviser for Takeo. “Wasn’t that a polite gesture of them?” Pen asks with a smile.

Even though he has worked with all the contemporary political parties at some time, he was never tempted to join one until now: “Last year I decided to join the Human Rights Party because I have listened to Khem Sokha’s policies and I agree with them. Especially those concerning human rights, democracy and social issues.”

Hearing Pen use the fashionable political slogans of the present took me by surprise at first. I realised I had originally taken him to be a political fossil – encased in a box of outdated socialist dictums and clichés – but as he warmed to his theme he showed me that his political education has never stood still and he has kept up with the times: “Today, the people must have the right to freedom of speech, opposition and dissent in order to steer the leaders in a positive direction.

“No one is immortal, everybody will die in the end, but better to die knowing you have helped your country develop peacefully, with dignity and honour.”


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