battambang town – To his neighbors he is known simply as the man who built a road through Tuol Teak commune, a swampy stretch of land about a kilometer from the center of this provincial capital.
Sok Yoeun’s road, a narrow track of packed dirt on a slight rise between marshland and a strip of shacks belonging to his neighbors, is one of the few physical reminders of the man who fled to Thailand several months ago.
While in those months Sok Yoeun has become in many ways an abstraction of political causes both good and bad, for those who lived around him the road is symbolic of how much he cared about his neighbors.
Branded an international terrorist by Prime Minister Hun Sen for his alleged role in 1998’s Siem Reap rocket attack, the Battambang province farmer and Sam Rainsy Party activist has been forced to the center of a minor international incident as Cambodia seeks to extradite him from Thailand to face prosecution.
But here, several hundred kilometers from the charged political rhetoric and diplomatic negotiating in Phnom Penh and Bangkok, the picture of Sok Yoeun is of a man trying to do good but perhaps unknowingly caught in an alleged CPP bid to destroy its political opponents, according to party colleagues and others who know him.
“He is too old to have done this thing,” said one neighbor living a short distance from Sok Yoeun’s house, bluntly dismissing the government’s claim of Sok Yoeun’s involvement in the rocket attack, which has been described by Hun Sen supporters as an attempt on the prime minister’s life.
Indeed, a recently released photograph of Sok Yoeun is that of an older man staring listlessly at the camera. At the time of the rocket attack, family members claim Sok Yoeun was at home sick with an unspecified illness from which he has never fully recovered.
“He is not well. I’m two years younger and I could not have done what they say he has done—I could not have carried any rockets,” said another neighbor.
When asked if he thought Sok Yoeun could be guilty of the crime he is charged with, a senior provincial military police official, who didn’t want to be named, only smiled, saying, “he is a gentle man.”
On the night of Sept 4, 1999, military court officials from Phnom Penh ordered the military police official to help them apprehend Sok Yoeun, despite providing him no evidence against the suspect and an existing law against nighttime arrests, he said.
Saying he told his men only to surround Sok Yoeun’s house, the military police official defended his actions that night by saying that none of his officers entered the dwelling and suggesting that he wanted to ignore the order entirely.
“I cooperated by the order only,” the official said.
The official, who said he has known Sok Yoeun for a long time, added later: “After I heard about [the accusations] I had only pity for Sok Yoeun’s family.”
Battambang provincial police also acknowledge having never received either evidence against Sok Yoeun or a copy of an arrest warrant, according to first deputy police chief Chan Kosal, a CPP loyalist.
Though Chan Kosal said Sok Yoeun is an active political figure, he was never the target of past police investigations. On the rocket attack case, Chan Kosal said provincial police have not been directly involved and that he didn’t know the details of the investigation.
But Chan Kosal did refer to what he called a “biography” of Sok Yoeun, detailing his past as an anti-communist activist jailed by the Vietnamese in the mid-1980s and then as a Funcinpec member operating on the Thai-Cambodian border in the early 1990s.
Overall, reports of Sok Yoeun’s past military and political activities are often contradictory and don’t present a definitive picture.
Sam Rainsy Party member Doung Cheat, now acting as Battambang province parliamentarian Lon Phon’s assistant, maintains Sok Yoeun was a Funcinpec soldier prior to joining the Sam Rainsy Party in 1996—a detail Chan Kosal suggested is not entirely accurate.
Chan Kosal echoed claims by Sok Yoeun’s family that his name was only entered on the military rolls and that he never served under any command.
“Well, he wasn’t exactly a soldier,” he said.
Sok Yoeun’s approximately five-year career as a major in a heavy artillery unit was fabricated, according to family members, as a way to get more money.
“We put his name on the list [of government soldiers],” admits Sok Yoeun’s only son, referring to his father as a ghost soldier. Both the son and Sok Yoeun’s wife maintain the farmer never had any military training.
Funcinpec Secretary General Tol Lah and Senator Nhiek Bun Chhay, who served until 1998 as Funcinpec’s highest-ranking army general, both said they did not recognize Sok Yoeun’s name as that of a former Funcinpec soldier.
However, military intelligence official Hour Sareth, who is helping head up the investigation in to the rocket attack, tells a very different story, saying Sok Yoeun’s military history extends back to the 1970-75 Lon Nol government.
Hour Sareth said they both served in special forces units before they became Khmer Rouge fighters in the mid-1970s.
“Sok Yoeun is still the best at [operating] weapons,” Hour Sareth claimed, an assertion that, if confirmed, would lend some plausibility to the government’s case against Sok Yoeun.
RCAF officials continue to maintain that Sok Yoeun is one of several men responsible for the rocket attack, one of the most dramatic crimes in recent Cambodian history.
The daylight launch from a clump of bushes failed to hurt any of dozens of politicians in a targeted automobile convoy but killed a bystander and wounded three.
Hour Sareth claims the government’s investigation into the incident is “95 percent” complete, mentioning witness statements, alleged intra-party communications and, most importantly, a videotape where Sok Yoeun can be seen confessing to an unspecified role in the attack.
Though Sok Yoeun has recanted this confession, saying it was coerced, some Western diplomatic sources have said the government’s dogged pursuit of the activist across the Thai border may indicate they have more of a legitimate case against him than previously thought.
“Why this obscure guy? If they just wanted to intimidate the [Sam Rainsy] party they would have just picked another target after Sok Yoeun crossed the border, they would have picked one of the parliamentarians,” one diplomat said.
Sok Yoeun’s son—who, like the rest of his family, did not want to be named and claimed they have been intimidated and harassed—said he is unclear about what his father did even as recently as the 1980s, when the rest of the family lived mostly in Banteay Meanchey province.
The son maintained that his father was only a rice farmer during the mid-1990s. He said Sok Yoeun sold salted fish at Battambang’s markets before fleeing to Thailand.
In 1996, at the urging of Lon Phon and another Sam Rainsy Party member who is now a parliamentarian, Cheam Channy, Sok Yoeun joined the party and gained popularity, building on his reputation for his anti-communist actions in the 1980s, Doung Cheat said.
Described by some party members as “more popular than [Battambang parliamentarian] Lon Phon,” family members say Sok Yoeun was being groomed for an official position in party leadership.
According to party members and human rights workers, Sok Yoeun’s rise through party ranks may explain why he became a suspect in the rocket attack.
“He is a strong man. People know him well and he has many active supporters,” Doung Cheat said.
Sok Yoeun’s story parallels an established pattern of action that party members and rights workers claim marks an orchestrated attempt by CPP elements in the government to damage their political opponents—secretive nighttime arrests, unspecified criminal charges and a seeming lack of evidence outside of allegedly coerced videotaped confessions.
“[The CPP] can blame us very easily, even without evidence,” Sok Yoeun’s wife said. “The government hates the opposition party and they will do anything to blame us.”
Sam Rainsy Party officials maintain the CPP is trying to “cut the head off” of the party in Battambang, where the opposition party has one of its strongest political presences in the country, in advance of the commune elections tentatively scheduled to be held late this year.
One of the party members arrested for the rocket attack, Kong Bun Heang, also lived in Battambang town.
And Battambang parliamentarian Lon Phon was kidnapped from his Phnom Penh home in October in what party officials claim was a case of political intimidation, though police officials say the abduction was carried out by criminals motivated by ransom money.
“It’s not at random that they are targeting our most active people,” Sam Rainsy said. “Hun Sen needs to frighten the Sam Rainsy Party, especially the activists in the provinces.”
Military intelligence officials, including director Mol Roeup, deny their pursuit of suspects for the 1998 rocket attack is politically motivated.
Meanwhile, a faded sign bearing the Sam Rainsy Party’s logo of a candle inside a blue circle still tops the entrance to Sok Yoeun’s house, where he opened the party’s first Battambang office in 1996.
But family members say the two-story meeting hall has been empty for months since the first arrests in connection with the rocket attack were made.
“Everyone is afraid to come here, even neighbors,” Sok Yoeun’s wife said. “They pity us but they are scared.”