Self-Exiled Activist Returns After Royal Pardon

Moeung Sonn, a self-exiled political activist found guilty of disinformation in July 2009 over his claims that a lighting installation on Angkor Wat would damage the temple, returned to Cambodia on Monday, vowing to revive the nationalist NGO he headed when he fled six years ago.

Upon the recommendation of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Mr. Sonn was granted a pardon last month by King Norodom Sihamoni, allowing him to return to the country without facing the two-year prison sentence he was handed shortly after he fled to France.

After arriving at the Phnom Penh International Airport in the morning on a flight from Bangkok, Mr. Sonn was driven to Kandal province’s Takhmao City, where he held a ceremony to pray to the remains of his parents there.

Speaking from Takhmao, the activist said his first priority would be to reestablish the Khmer Civilization Foundation, the NGO he was president of in 2009 when he made his remarks about Angkor Wat.

“This is the priority, because since I have left the motherland, my NGO has lost its members, so I have to rebuild it,” Mr. Sonn said.

Mr. Sonn said the looming Asean economic integration at the end of this year and increased outflows of migrant workers since he left in 2009 meant that his NGO would have to expand its scope beyond Cambodia.

“I think that anywhere there are Cambodian people, even migrant workers, there will be the soul of our nation. I mean that the culture—the civilization—goes with them, and can be compared to the shadow of a body,” he said.

Yet the activist, who previously sat on the steering committee of the Sam Rainsy Party, said that the long-term survival of Angkor Wat would remain a key focus of his organization.

“I just arrived today, and have not visited or seen Angkor Wat yet,” Mr. Sonn said. “What I have seen has been through Facebook, and I don’t know what is the truth…. Maybe next week I will visit Angkor Wat.”

“I am interested in one thing I saw through the media and through the radio: that the government has punished some foreigners who took naked photographs. This is correct because it is a sacred place,” Mr. Sonn said.

“I want to see whether those sites have put signs telling the tourists that they are not allowed to be naked and take photographs, and not to touch the stones.”

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