The body of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s most trusted allies, was cremated in front of dignitaries, monks and hometown admirers in an elaborate, if modestly attended, ceremony at Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum Park on Sunday morning.
Sok An—whose family’s wealth seemed to grow in tandem with his public portfolio, which after about 35 years came to include a vast array of top government jobs—died on Wednesday of an unspecified illness at the age of 66.
After a traditional Buddhist blessing and a read-through of career highlights, National Assembly President Heng Samrin set the body alight, out of sight of the crowd, at the center of a triple-tiered crematorium erected for the occasion, sending a thick black pall into the sky.
“My family and I are very proud and honored at this time because all of you came to participate and recognize the achievements of Samdech Vibol Panha Sok An in the government led by Samdech Hun Sen in the cause of serving the national interest,” Sok An’s son Sok Puthyvuth said in a brief eulogy.
“My family and I will seek to preserve the achievements of Samdech Vibol Panha Sok An because of a desire for the country to progress,” he said.
The honorific “Samdech Vibol Panha,” which translates roughly as “Greatest Brilliant Intellect,” was bestowed upon Sok An just days before his death by King Norodom Sihamoni, capping a career in government that began immediately after the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979.
Sok An became chief of cabinet at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in 1982, three years before Hanoi made Mr. Hun Sen prime minister, and continued to climb the ranks until the position of minister in charge of the Council of Ministers was created specifically for him in 2004.
He was among the government’s chief negotiators in peace talks that led to the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, led Cambodia in talks with the U.N. establishing the Khmer Rouge tribunal and spearheaded the country’s successful campaign—in the face of stiff resistance from Thailand—to list Preah Vihear temple as a Unesco world heritage site.
Among the audience of mostly government officials, civil servants, monks and nuns, a few dozen senior citizens also made the trip to Phnom Penh from Sok An’s home base in Takeo province.
“I think His Excellency Sok An was a good government official because he built many schools and canals for the poor people in Takeo province. His Excellency Sok An would bring gifts and money for the poor people when he came to visit the area,” Yin Yi, 73, said.
To his critics, however, Sok An was part of a tight-knit elite that has consolidated its control of a corrupt and kleptocratic government with the help of deeply rooted patronage networks and sometimes brutal force, all while securing their personal fortunes by installing their children into the same political power grid.
For all his influence and titles, the crowd that followed the early morning funeral procession from Sok An’s central Phnom Penh mansion to Wat Botum Park was relatively small—a few thousands mourners followed the flag-draped coffin as it wound around the Independence Monument along emptied streets. Few came out to watch the cortege pass by.
The numbers paled in comparison to the mass of mourners that thronged the capital’s streets for the funeral procession of Kem Ley, the political analyst and outspoken government critic who was gunned down inside a Phnom Penh convenience store in July, in what many believe was a politically motivated hit.
When his body was driven out of the city later that month, tens of thousands followed, choking its main thoroughfares for hours. Thousands more had lined the route in a show of support for a man many admired for his straight talk about what he saw as the government’s abuses of power.
A few month’s later, the government refused a request to hold the traditional 100 day ceremony for Kem Ley at Wat Botum.
In contrast, the state set aside about $750,000 to stage Sunday’s cremation of Sok An, a sum that quickly sparked outrage on Facebook from critics of the ruling party.
On Saturday, Senate President Say Chhum issued a statement in his capacity as CPP vice president to say that the money had been returned to the state coffers and that the ruling party would cover the costs on its own.
On Sunday, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan denied that the public outcry had anything to do with the decision to return the funds and that the $750,000 was always intended to be a loan that the CPP would pay back. Mr. Eysan did not mention that the money was a loan when he said it was coming from the state last week.