In this nation of personality-driven politics, no party can claim a more enduring figurehead than octogenarian Son Sann.
“He’s a historical figure. Our party is an historical party working for the future of Cambodia,” explains National Assembly Second Vice President Son Soubert, the president of the Son Sann Party since his father’s retirement in March.
He may no longer be president, but Son Sann’s influence over the party looms large. His face adorns the logo, the party has adopted his name as their own and the achievements of his 60 years in politics are still its driving ideological force.
One of the founders of the Democrat Party in the 1940s, Son Sann has served as prime minister and a trusted adviser to then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and was founder of the National Bank of Cambodia. He was later known as a nationalist resistance leader.
It was from the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, the resistance movement Son Sann founded in 1979 to fight the invading Vietnamese, that the Son Sann Party’s forerunner sprang.
After the Paris Peace Accords were signed and the guns laid aside, the KPNLF was reinvented by Son Sann as the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party. The party went on to win 10 seats in parliament in the 1993 elections.
But tensions soon became apparent between party president Son Sann and his deputy, Information Minister Ieng Mouly, culminating in the party’s 1995 break-up into two opposing factions.
Tragedy struck at the height of the row, with the suicide inside the Assembly building of BLDP parliamentarian Meas Chanleap. Later that year, two grenade attacks on Son Sann loyalists left 31 injured—among them, Son Soubert.
After the factional fighting of July 1997, all but one of the six BLDP Son Sann parliamentarians loyal to Son Sann went into self-exile with other members of the National United Front, the alliance they had entered opposing the CPP.
In their absence, court proceedings were started against them over rights to the BLDP name. They lost and later renamed the party.
It’s a harrowing history for any party, but the years in the resistance were good training for bad times, Son Soubert says.
“We have suffered from the beginning. When we started the resistance, we used to live in a very difficult situation. At first, no one supported us. We had few weapons,” Son Soubert says.
It may have bred tenacity in his party ranks, but whatever his opposition to the current regime, Son Soubert does not wish to see a return to armed resistance.
“I told [UN envoy Fransesc] Vendrell that we have forces we could call upon, but we don’t want to do that,” he says, referring to government army soldiers that still view themselves as members of the KPNLF.
“For us, we have been used to suffering, but our people need something stable to make the people feel confident.”
And that stable future, Son Soubert says, relies on reconciling the past and the present, tradition and modernity, in the spirit of the values embodied by the party’s founding name: Buddhism, Liberalism and Democracy.
“Buddhism is the cement for Cambodian society. It protects against the foreign ideology. Buddhism means moderation, not a permissive society as in the West,” he said.
“We need a revolution of the mind and of the heart. Our people have lost their identity after the years of the Khmer Rouge and forced warfare. Our society likes to ape. Now they ape the Thais, before they aped the French.”
However, Son Soubert rejects the view of some Asian leaders that democracy is just another way of aping Western culture.
“I don’t agree with the Asian way of democracy, these so-called ‘Asian values.’ Human rights are human rights everywhere,” he said.
“I come from an archaeological background. I want to preserve our heritage but I cannot accept all traditions. For example, I do not accept the [traditional] role of women in our society.”
It is this melding of traditional and modernizing forces that gives the party its appeal, Son Soubert says. “Old people remember Son Sann because of his connection with the King and because of his struggle for the liberation of Cambodia. In cities, the young people, students are still supporting our cause.”
But he admits to being unsure of the party’s appeal to those in business, who he says “usually like to be close to those in power.”
As leader of the opposition National United Front, which includes Funcinpec, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Cambodian Neutral Party, Son Soubert’s relations with “those in power” are decidedly cool. He reacts cautiously when asked if he could ever again enter a coalition government with the CPP.
“Among the CPP we believe there are those who are democratically minded,” he says, citing party moderate Sar Kheng as one he could envision working with. “Others don’t want you to be equal partners.”
Son Soubert says he sees the party’s political future as working alongside its allies in the NUF. Other parties in the alliance, he says, have benefitted from his party’s support, and he expects a return on that investment.
“If our party is weakened, then is there any hope for the democratic process? Sam Rainsy relied on our support network in the US. We don’t mind about that. I just hope he’s not a one-man show.”