Thousands of Cambodians gathered near Wat Botum Sunday morning to say farewell to Son Sann, a statesman and leader many credit with remaining untainted by corruption despite his many years in public life.
Son Sann, who died on Dec 19 in Paris at the age of 89, had achieved a reputation as a leader who elevated principle over personal gain during his more than 50 years of public service.
King Norodom Sihanouk presided over the cremation ceremony, the most elaborate since that of Buddhist leader Oum Sum in July.
Many in the crowd wept as the service proceeded. One motorcycle-taxi driver, who did not want his name used, said he came because Son Sann “was a clean man. He never killed anyone. Even though he was a politician, he never suppressed people or did bad things to them.”
Khim Man, 67, from Kompong Cham, said she came because Son Sann “was a very good leader.” Another, Thach Reng, agreed, saying “He was very clean in mind and politics.”
Speakers included former parliamentarian Pal Ham, a political ally of Son Sann’s, who outlined the late leader’s wide-ranging career, which included stints as prime minister and minister of finance, as well as rebel leader in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Son Sann, who also founded the National Bank in 1955, served as its governor until 1968. But Pal Ham said his family history stretched far back before 1935, when Son Sann entered public life as deputy governor of Battambang province
Pal Ham said Son Sann was the great-grandson of “a great Cambodian hero, Okhna Son Kouy,” governor of the former Cambodian province of Prea Trapeang in the Kampuchea Krom area, which is now a part of Vietnam.
The family’s role as leaders in Kampuchea Krom drew at least one mourner to Sunday’s ceremonies. Thach Voeung of Phnom Penh, who said he left Kampuchea Krom in 1986 because of oppression by the Vietnamese, said he came to the cremation ceremony “because I was told by my parents and my grandparents that he is the best leader to lead Kampuchea Krom.”
“Now he has left us behind,” Thach Voeung said. “It’s hard to find a man like him. Until today, I have not seen anyone who had no corruption, a man who takes religion seriously. Now we are looking for another one who thinks like him, a man that we can respect.”
Son Soubert, the late statesman’s son, nearly broke into tears as he recalled his father’s life. Son Sann could be a taskmaster, Son Soubert said, citing a time when the son’s difficulty in learning mathematics made the father angry.
“But he was angry, not at me, but because he felt I was limiting my own future” by failing to learn, he said. “He always urged me to learn.”
Senator Kem Sokha said Son Sann had inspired him to enter politics. “He always told me we are not the boss of the people, we are their servants.” He deplored violence, and valued education and democracy, he said.
The diplomatic corps was in attendance, as were many top government officials, monks, and military officials.
The ceremony included a military honor guard and a classical Khmer orchestra, which played both traditional and Western funeral music.
(Additional reporting by Van Roeun)