A ceremony marking the 100th birthday of one of Cambodia’s most prominent statesmen will be held on Wednesday in Kandal province.
The event honoring the late Son Sann will take place in Sre Ampil village at the Peaceful Children’s Home orphanage and education center, which he and his son Son Soubert founded in 1994 in Kien Svay district’s Chhoeuteal commune.
The ceremony will include the launch of Son Sann’s book, “The Memoirs of Son Sann.” Published in English and Khmer by The Cambodia Daily Press, it covers his life and events in the country up to the early 1990s.
When Son Sann passed away in December 2000, the National Assembly observed a minute of silence and, at King Norodom Sihanouk’s request, a state funeral was held for the man who had served on the Council of Ministers for two decades in the 1950s and 1960s, and had become the first president of the National Assembly after the 1993 national elections.
Born on Oct 5, 1911, Son Sann was directly involved in international events that influenced the course of Cambodia’s history. Perhaps even more importantly, he had the reputation of being an honest man.
In 1954, he proved a crucial member of the Cambodian team that negotiated the dissolution of Indochina.
Once the Geneva Accords were signed and Indochina’s currency made obsolete, he was given just days to set up Cambodia’s National Bank and the riel monetary system.
From 1959 to 1961, he headed the Cambodian delegation to the UN with, he writes in his memoirs, the “special mission” of discreetly paving the way for Cambodia to submit its Preah Vihear case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Its verdict in 1962 would confirm Cambodia’s claim to the monument.
And in the 1980s, as he headed an armed resistance movement overseeing thousands of refugees along the Thai border, he played a major role in the negotiations that led to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and the return to normalcy in the country.
He was one of the leaders of the Democratic Party that won Cambodia’s national elections in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The party advocated constitutional monarchy and full independence from France. This brought upon the party the animosity of both King Norodom Sihanouk and France, which was still trying to control the country as it had done before World War II.
Following the assassination of one of the Democratic Party leaders, Ieu Koeuss, in 1950 and the arrest of several party members by the French, Son Sann was also threatened with arrest. Still, he continued to believe that constitutional monarchy, which is Cambodia’s political system today, was the best formula for the country. “We are royalists; we would not mind being democrats, but not republicans,” he writes in his memoirs.
And yet, once he had renounced the throne to run the country as a political leader, Prince Sihanouk never hesitated to appoint him to several ministerial positions in addition to his post as governor of the National Bank which he headed until his retirement from public life in 1968.
At times, this created odd situations, Son Sann writes. “Following a ministerial reshuffle, Samdech Norodom Sihanouk asked me to lead the National Bank of Cambodia and the Ministry of Finance at the same time. I evoked the incompatibility of the two functions…the Cambodian Chief of State replied, ‘There is no incompatibility that matters: I need you!’
“As minister of finance, I actually had to write to the National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) to request an advance. Then, as governor of the NBC, to respond negatively to the minister of finance, that is to myself.”
However Norodom Sihanouk did not consult him before deciding to nationalize banks and foreign trade in November 1963, “knowing that I am a liberal,” Son Sann writes. “There was turmoil, and strong impact on some banks, which would face bankruptcy without the assistance of the National Bank.”
“It can be said that Samdech Norodom Sihanouk was brilliant in matters of diplomacy and foreign policy…but not in economic and financial affairs. By 1967, He had stopped listening to His two personal Advisors [Penn Nouth and himself], but lent an ear instead to His entourage in Chamkar Mon, where he resided.”
Being the diplomat that he was, Son Sann hardly says anything in his memoirs against officials of the time. But he does mention this “entourage” currying favors with the Prince at his Chamkar Mon compound, which now houses the Senate.
Son Sann believed that this entourage was giving Norodom Sihanouk the wrong advice. When he decided to resign from public life in 1968, it was in the hope that it would help “open the eyes of the Prince,” his son Mr Soubert said in an interview.
The “entourage” tried to have him arrested on trumped-up charges in 1968. They failed but he soon resigned.
In March 1970, the Lon Nol government ousted Norodom Sihanouk from power. Son Sann remained in Phnom Penh and was put under house arrest. Shortly after, Lon Nol called him in to let him know that the ouster was irreversible.
“My father did not agree,” Mr Soubert said. “He told him to remember that, throughout Cambodia’s history, each time we were divided, our usual enemies would interfere.
“My father does not talk about this [in his memoirs] but he did a great deal to try to reconcile both sides…. In 1972, it nearly succeeded: the Prince was agreeing, but Lon Nol and especially the Americans [heavily involved and funding his military action] were opposed to it,” Mr Soubert said.
Towards 1973, Son Sann even wrote to US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to ask him to have Lon Nol replaced, but received a negative answer, Mr Soubert said. By then, Lon Nol’s health and ability to rule were seriously in question.
“My father tried until the last minute,” he said. Son Sann traveled back and forth between Phnom Penh and Paris as his only mean of contacting Norodom Sihanouk who was in Beijing was through Cambodian General Ngo Hou, who lived in Paris and visited the Prince on a regular basis in China.
So in April 1975, Son Sann was in Paris preparing a message to be carried to Norodom Sihanouk when he received the news that the Khmer Rouge had seized Phnom Penh, Mr Soubert said.
Mr Soubert also happened to be in Paris: He had just completed research in India for his post-graduate degree and was planning to go back to Cambodia as soon as he had submitted his thesis at a French institution.
Stranded and needing to earn a living, Mr Soubert with his brother and brother-in-law started a chain of small food stores in Nice in southern France, while Son Sann in Paris concentrated on helping Cambodian refugees and alerting the public to the situation under Pol Pot.
Son Sann took the helm of the Association generale des Khmers a l’etranger, or Association of the Khmer Abroad. The association received legal status in France but with the stipulation that no political activities would be allowed.
“We could not be involved in politics, make declarations against the Khmer Rouge even when this was a matter of human rights, which we really found shocking coming from France,” Mr Soubert said.
“In spite of this, under the cover of cultural activities-we had created a company…of Cambodian classical ballet and traditional dance-we would go to all provinces of France and, in every theater, we and especially [Cambodian journalist] Suon Kaset would speak of the hardship people were facing in Cambodia,” Mr Soubert said.
“But it was very hard because no one wanted to hear about Indochina or the [previous US] Vietnam War” in Europe or the US, he said.
In his memoirs, Son Sann writes, “I wrote to Kurt Waldheim, then secretary-general of the UN, to request his intervention to stop the genocide. He replied that he could not go to Cambodia because the Khmer Rouge would not allow him to.”
Still, Mr Soubert said, Cambodians refugees who had fled Pol Pot’s Cambodia were able to speak at the Oslo International Hearing in Norway in January 1978, and the British representative raised the question of human rights violations by the Khmer Rouge at the Geneva meeting of the UN Human Rights Committee in October 1978.
The association was getting money at those cultural performances and this was being sent “discreetly” to provide with food and medicine Cambodian military groups fighting the Khmer Rouge along the Thai border, Mr Soubert said.
By October 1978, Asean countries were aware that Vietnam was planning to intervene in Cambodia, and a Thai government representative was sent to France to ask Son Sann to reunite all those Cambodian military groups under one organization and take the lead, Mr Soubert said. The thought of having Vietnamese forces right at the Cambodian-Thai border worried the Thai authorities.
As it turned out, Son Sann became president of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front that ran military and civilian camps along the border after the Vietnamese forces had ousted the Khmer Rouge from power in January 1979.
“In 1979, it was horrible,” Mr Soubert said. As thousands of Cambodians fled the country looking for a safe haven, he said, “No one cared for Cambodian refugees: They were being pushed back [at the Thai border].”
“All we could do at first was to help those refugees who were so malnourished. My job at the time was to try to send food and medicine to that population, which was very hard because everyone was sympathetic towards the Vietnamese who had freed Cambodia of the Khmer Rouge.
“I even remember a representative of the UN Children’s Fund in Bangkok…who accused us of petty politics,” Mr Soubert said. “I had asked Unicef for blackboards and chalk to teach our children under the trees, and they didn’t give us anything.”
At first, the only support came from the International Red Cross. Other organizations such as Catholic Relief Services joined in, but because their shipments of food and medicine had to go through Thai military checkpoints before reaching refugee camps on Cambodian soil, supplies hardly made it to the camps, Mr Soubert said. The World Food Program also provided food, but getting their shipments remained problematic, although bicycles supplied by the Israeli Embassy greatly helped transport, he said.
Son Sann left no stone unturned to rally support. In the mid-1980s, he even met Pope John Paul II in Rome. He also went to Beijing in July 1984 “on a begging mission,” journalist Jacques Bekaert wrote. Supplies had been promised but not delivered although Khmer Rouge forces that were also fighting the Vietnamese had received all their promised supplies from China, Mr Bekaert noted.
The KPNLF had set up several villages peopled by thousands of refugees on Cambodian territory all along the border with the organization’s military forces insuring protection. Considered illegal immigrants in Thailand, those refugees had to stay on the Cambodian side where they were exposed to attacks by Phnom Penh armies. Following a series of offensives that destroyed the KPNLF villages in the mid-1980, the international community acted to allow refugees on Thai soil.
Throughout the decade, meetings were held among Cambodians to try to come up with a solution, Mr Soubert said. But it is only in 1991 that the Peace Agreement was signed by all Cambodian and international parties involved and the thousands of refugees in Thai camps could return to the country.
In his memoirs, Son Sann hardly speaks of the 1970s and 1980s and the major role he played during those decades. Mr Soubert plans to complete his father’s memoirs with an account of that period.
On Wednesday, 101 monks are expected to take part in the centennial ceremony, which will end with the presentation of a video on Son Sann and the KPNLF.
In the introduction to his memoirs, he writes, “I could have chosen as a title, ‘Memoirs of a Jack-of-all-trades in Cambodia,’ for I was to assume many functions.” In the end, he said he preferred to be known as “a servant of Cambodia.”
Box at end: For information on the Peaceful Children’s Home, visit the website www.fopch.org or call 023-219-425.