Hundreds of people were on hand Sunday evening at Pochentong Airport as the body of Son Sann, one of Cambodia’s leading statesmen for more than a half-century, was ceremoniously returned to Cambodia.
The former prime minister, guerrilla fighter and democracy leader died Dec 19 in Paris of a heart attack at age 89. He is scheduled to be cremated Dec 31 in a ceremony led by King Norodom Sihanouk at Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum, according to Royal Palace Minister Kong Sam Ol.
Just before 6 pm, about 800 people, including monks, a trumpet band, government officials and former refugees met the Thai Airways flight carrying Son Sann’s body, accompanied by his wife. Contained inside a coffin, the body was taken to the Phnom Penh home of his son, Son Soubert, who is a member of the Constitutional Council.
“I have followed him since I was in a refugee camp,” said Thong Bunly, a former refugee in the 1980s at Son Sann’s Site 2 camp, located at the Thai-Cambodian border. “I am here to show my respect to him and share my condolences with his family.”
Also present at the airport were members of the ethnic Kampuchea Krom from southern Vietnam. One poster called Son Sann a hero. Another stated that as fellow Cambodians, Kampuchea Krom would like to share in the grieving.
“We are here to see him one last time,” said one Kampuchea Krom native. “We were not able to not see his body, but the coffin is enough.”
Son Sann was born in Phnom Penh, according to Son Soubert. But his parents were from Kampuchea Krom, where some 1 million ethnic Khmers live today.
Kampuchea Krom have great respect for Son Sann and have regarded him as their father since 1947, when he led and strengthened the Kampuchea Krom’s association, according to Thach Reng, an adviser to National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh and a former member of the Son Sann-led Buddhist Liberation Democratic Party.
Other government officials present at the airport were National Assembly member and CPP official Chea Soth; deputy prime minister, minister of education and Funcinpec secretary-general, Tol Lah, and RCAF General Dien Del, who served as deputy military commander of the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, a guerrilla resistance group that Son Sann founded in 1979 near the Thai border.
As head of the liberation front, Son Sann was one of the leaders of the four factions that signed the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.
Before Cambodia’s civil wars began in the 1970s, Son Sann held 17 cabinet posts under Sihanouk, founding the National Bank of Cambodia in 1955 and serving as prime minister in 1967. He resigned all government positions in 1968 in protest of official corruption.