A politician and a well-regarded thinker long before the apocalypse that engulfed Cambodia in 1975, Son Sann perhaps redefined himself in the years immediately after the Vietnamese drove the Khmer Rouge from power, reemerging as a rebel leader in Site 2, one of the sprawling refugee camps that dotted the Thai-Cambodian border.
In 1979 he scraped together a fighting force from those fleeing westward to battle the Vietnamese from Thailand. He sent Dien Del from France to the Thai border early that year, where he said he recruited 3,000 people to fight and put together a fledgling version of what later that year would become the Khmer Peoples National Liberation Front party.
“There were not that many [rebels] but they were qualified and they were brave,” said Dien Del, now a Funcinpec parliamentarian but then a party commander who began working with Son Sann in France in 1977.
“[Son Sann] was a good leader. He is a man I respected.”
But unlike many of his equals, Son Sann didn’t reemerge as only a warrior.
“Son Sann said to me ‘Soldiers are only for politics,’” recalled Pol Ham, now a Funcinpec parliamentarian but then a member of the party’s Executive Commission of Information and an editor of a KPNLF newspaper.
At other camps refugees were being taught how to fight and turned back to face the Vietnamese, often with devastating results.
But Son Sann was looking beyond the war years and at Site 2 there was created an education system whose legacy is still evident in the thousands of Cambodians making up the backbone of the country’s civil society.
“I have never seen a resistance camp like Son Sann’s, which had a college and many students receiving [degrees],” Pol Ham said.
It was Son Sann’s push for education that Sok Vann, an English teacher for the Catholic Organization for Emergency Relief and Refugees in Battambang, credits for getting him where he is today.
“I was well educated because of his appeals to other countries for aid to assist students and refugees,” Sok Vann said.
While at Site 2 in 1990 Sok Vann won his Baccalaureate degree.
“Because of the free education organized by [Son Sann] I got a job at COERR [after being repatriated in 1992],” Sok Vann said.
Ean Tith’s parents died during the Pol Pot regime he drifted until “I chose the refugee camp under Son Sann as my house after I was told the food and education were free.”
“I’ll never forget what he tried to do for me and other people,” said Ean Tith, who like many of those educated at Site 2, enjoys the relative stability of working for an NGO.
Even as war raged along the Thai-Cambodian border, forcing refugees to shift constantly between makeshift camps, school continued—often without the benefit of teaching materials or shelter, recalled Lao Mong Hay, a former director of Site 2’s Institute of Public Administration.
“He’s a pioneer who paved the way for us as younger people, including myself, to walk along the democratic road,” Lao Mong Hay, now a well-known democracy advocate, said.
Long before he was a rebel leader Son Sann, who died of natural causes Tuesday morning in Paris at 89, had a long career in politics, beginning as deputy governor of Battambang province at the age of 24. In 1933, he became the first Cambodian to graduate from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales, one of France’s elite universities.
When he returned to Cambodia, he became the adviser of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk. In 1946, he became finance minister, and went on to be a cabinet minister 17 different times under the monarch.
In 1955, Son Sann founded the National Bank of Cambodia and was governor of the bank until 1967, when he became prime minister for one year.
In 1968, Son Sann resigned from all his government positions, citing corruption and the influence of the royal entourage.
When General Lon Nol ousted Prince Sihanouk in a 1970 coup d’etat, Son Sann was initially placed under house arrest. He then spent the next few years trying to gain support to restore Prince Sihanouk to power, but the takeover by the Khmer Rouge in 1975 rendered his efforts moot.
(Additional reporting by Gina Chon)