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Cambodian Political History

The Case of Pen Sovann

Luke Young is a writer, researcher, archivist, and educator. Originally from Tacoma, Washington, he has lived in Cambodia since 1992.

The recent history of Cambodia is little known, greatly disputed, and grim. The first liberation movement against French colonialism and its local puppets was disarmed as part of the 1954 Geneva accords on Indochina. The resulting regime of King Sihanouk in pre-modern peasant Cambodia was neutral in the United States war against Vietnam, but after U.S.-backed Lon Nol deposed Sihanouk in March 1970, President Nixon launched massive raids on what he termed “sanctuaries” in Cambodia. The bomb tonnage has been estimated at twice what had been dropped on North Vietnam, and the loss of Cambodian lives at half a million—more than five percent of the total population. U.S. Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, who visited Cambodia in 1975, described the wreckage as “greater evil than we have done to any country in the world.”*
Pen Sovann, Prime Minister of Cambodia in 1981 after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge regime and who is today seventy-seven years old, played a central role in Cambodian left politics of the 1970s and ‘80s. This short biographic sketch of Pen Sovann, who consented to a lengthy interview with the author and is quoted often in the following paragraphs, depicts a political history from a left perspective that is openly hostile both to the Khmer Rouge and the present rulers of Cambodia. We present it as an interesting contribution to a history on which no final judgments are yet possible. —The Editors

Pen Sovann’s political history stretches across much of the worst and most violent moments of modern Cambodian history and yet now he is hardly remembered by this generation. His picture was in every classroom across the country until one day “it just wasn’t there,” as Somaly, a former propagandist for the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, who was just a teenager in 1979, remembered.

Pen Sovann was born in Chan Teap Village on April 15, 1936, the year the first Khmer-language newspaper Nagaravatta started publishing. His family were simple subsistence farmers who worked the land year after year and were not educated much beyond the simple standards of the times. Although by no means well off, the Pen family was able to provide for themselves, seven children and both parents, without fear of starvation or going into debt, by the hard work of planting and harvesting rice. The family was atypical of most rural Cambodian families. All members of the family would contribute during harvest and planting. The children would be assigned different tasks throughout the year such as watching the cows, feeding the chickens, gathering wood, collecting fruit, catching fish or crabs, sewing clothes, and taking goods to the market. But all that ended on the day Pen Sovann’s father was seized by the French to work as a coolie, building bridges and dikes, staking out telegraph and telephone poles, and cutting timber. His absence from the family crippled them. Sovann said, “It was very hard on my mother. Very hard.” The first fires of hatred towards colonialism were kindled in the family once starvation began.

In March 1945, when the Japanese invaded Cambodia, leaving a skeleton staff of French in administration, Pen Sovann was himself seized by “the fascists,” as he called them, and forced to “manage and care take of cows.” The Japanese were “cruel,” and he was “angry, hurt and disappointed by the French but much more so by the Japanese,” who turned rice fields into cash crops.1 Once the Second World War ended in the Pacific on August 14, 1945, the French returned and a new spark of anti-colonial sentiment began to take shape in Sovann’s heart. He witnessed the renewed destruction of “the rights of the working poor, whose lives and liberty became even more restricted and controlled. They forced some to be coolies, some to be soldiers, and ground people down to their will.”

In his home Ta Keo province, Sovann said, “The Frenchknew that there was resistance by the working poor against the colonizers and their government, and that even when they were farming, they were hiding mines and other traps in areas frequented by French patrols, and so they would shoot indiscriminately at the farmers in frustration.”

Throughout the 1940s, a movement against the French, and against Khmer “puppets” of the French, became active. The movement was known as the Khmer Issarak (“Independent Khmer”), and in the early 1950s Prince Sihanouk began referring to all Issaraks as the Khmer Viet Minh, which was a title claimed only by guerillas along the Vietnamese border. The Issarak platform of operations centered on armed resistance to French rule, total national independence, and strong nationalism, although in the very beginning they focused mainly on anti-French propaganda in the then-Thai-controlled provinces of Siem Reap and Battambang. From the onset, there was strong Thai support for the movement, and in August 1946 the Issarak launched an attack on the city of Siem Reap from the Thai-controlled countryside, killing many French soldiers and occupying the ancient temples in the area before retreating a week later. Diplomatic pressure from the United States, coupled with Thai desire to be admitted into the newly founded United Nations, brought about the return of the two Thai-held provinces to the French. Yet support for the Issaraks by the Thai continued until the end of the 1940s.

The movement quickly grew nationwide throughout the post-world war years and became affiliated with a similar movement in both Laos and Vietnam. Throughout Eastern Cambodia, the Issarak were active in staging a heated guerrilla war against the French, often directly alongside their Vietnamese compatriots. One of Pen Sovann’s neighbors at that time was Ek Chhoeun. During the later rise of the Khmer Rouge and subsequent civil war (1968–1975), this man was known as “Ta Mok the butcher” and had a fierce reputation for ruthlessness and blood thirst. Ek Chhoeun was a high-ranking Issarak leader in Takeo province in the mid–1940s and was well known in the area for his involvement with the Issaraks, as well as for his outspoken anti-colonial sentiment. By 1950, at the age of fourteen, Pen Sovann readily joined the Issarak movement and was attached to Ek Chhoeun’s command. “I was trained in weaponry and a variety of political methods to resist and remove the French colonial administration from the country. Also to overthrow the influence the king had in village life and the oppression that went hand in hand from that.” Most of the armaments used by the Issarak were seized from the French. The greatest fear Sovann had throughout that period was for the safety and well-being of his family from reprisals. He stated that “once my whole family was put into prison, I had nothing more to be afraid of.” Even though his family was locked inside the French fortress in Takeo, he still made contact with them through a cousin—a soldier who happened to be stationed at the fortress.2

By 1949, direct French control over much of the administration of the Cambodian political structure had been relinquished to members of the royal government. Although still not declared an independent country, many of the daily decisions were made by Cambodians, with the French advising. This in turn began to hinder the growth of the Issarak movement, and created openings in a few Issarak units to French manipulation aimed at getting them to attack the Viet Minh, whom the French saw as a much more dangerous enemy. They were willing to supply and support these former enemies of their regime if they could be turned on “national” grounds against the primary enemies of the French. Although French support for the Issaraks was not all-encompassing, a small number of units did defect, and take up arms against their former Vietnamese comrades.

In April 1950, the First National Congress of the Khmer Resistance was held, and it voted to establish the United Issarak Front (UIF) and a proto-government called the Provisional People’s Liberation.3 The Central Committee was led by Son Ngoc Minh, considered one of the two key founders of Khmer Marxism, and three deputies including the well known Khmer Marxist Tou Samouth. Even though French influence was beginning to decline, the Indochinese Communist Party, Viet Minh, and the Khmer Issaraks continued to wage war against the “puppet” governments of Laos, South Vietnam, and Cambodia, all three of which were still effectively part of the French Empire up until and beyond the disbanding of the Indochinese Communist Party in February 1951. The Khmer membership of the Indochinese Communist Party formed the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party on June 28, 1951, led jointly by Son Ngoc Minh and Tou Samouth, and maintained a close relationship with both their Lao and Vietnamese counterparts. During that same month the Vietnamese Volunteer Army in Kampuchea began to fight alongside the United Issarak Front under a unified command. At the time the Indochinese Communist Party split into the Vietnam Worker’s Party, Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, and Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party, the first literature distributed focused on anti-colonialism. Sovann still remembers the first time he read Karl Marx: “It was June 1951,” he said, “and it was about the class struggle of the poor against the rich.”

Even with large shifts in political structure and the formation of new parties, the war against “the colonizers” continued unabated. The less than complete independence awarded Cambodia by the French on November 9, 1953, was disregarded, and the revolutionaries fought on until the Geneva Conference convened in May 1954 to settle the conflicts raging in Indochina. Even though the combined forces of the United Issarak Front and Vietnamese Volunteer Army in Kampuchea controlled and laid claim to more than one-third of the entire nation’s countryside, the UIF representatives Keo Moni and Mey Pho were strikingly excluded from the Conference. When a request was made by officials from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to include representatives of the Pathet Lao and the Khmer Issaraks, the head of the Cambodian delegation, Sam Sary, assertively claimed that the Issaraks did not constitute a government and was quoted as saying that they were “foreigners who are being manipulated by a foreign bloc.” The terms of the Indochina settlement stated that all Viet Minh forces would withdraw from Laos and Cambodia. However, the United Issarak Front were not granted regroupment zones as were their Vietnamese and Laotian partners, and instead were ordered immediately to disarm and prepare to take part in the national elections of 1955. This left a bitter feeling of resentment and disappointment towards the Vietnamese in the hearts of some Khmer revolutionaries—in particular those revolutionaries returning from France, such as Saloth Sar, Ieng Sary, and Noun Chea.

Ek Chhoun’s forces demobilized on July 27 and “buried their weapons, in event that the struggle would continue.” The Geneva Agreement stated that all Viet Minh had to be withdrawn within ninety days following July 23, and the demobilization of the Khmer Issarak took place at such a frenzied pace that it was nearly completed before the International Supervisory Commission began properly to function. A little over one thousand Khmer joined the departing Viet Minh and headed north with them to Hanoi to pursue further education in politics and revolution. Many of these left Cambodia due to fears of government reprisals and the belief that the revolution was unfinished. After 1970, many returned to fight for the revolution with the Khmer Rouge, as did Pen Sovann, who also left with the Viet Minh in 1954, and all but fifty-seven of these would survive the civil war and Pol Pot’s genocidal purges.4 On recollecting that time, Sovann stated, “My motivation [in leaving] was realizing that my country was still poor and exploited. So, I wanted to come back with an understanding and knowledge of how to change and rebuild the country.”

While the “Hanoi 1,000,” as the Khmer who joined the Viet Minh were known, were receiving military, political, ideological, and economic training, the radical movement back home was going through their own “era of political struggle,” as certain Asian scholars have called it. This era lasted from the conclusion of the Geneva Accords in 1954 to the peasant insurrection in Samlaut, Battambang in April 1967, which can be seen as one of the first acts of the soon raging civil war. Throughout the early 1950s before “independence” in 1953, many new political parties were formed, vying for power within the political freedom permitted by the French and hoping to repeat their success at winning assembly seats in the national elections of 1951 just as they had in 1947 and ‘48. These parties were: the Democrats, a party hated mutually by the French and Sihanouk for their populist platform, emphasis on independence, and seemingly large following among the educated and intellectuals; the Liberals, a party with no national program and an eagerness to collect French subventions; the Victorious Northeast, a party ruled by the overlord of Siem Reap province, Dap Chhuoun; and the Renovation Party, a monarchist party founded in 1947 as a counter to the “radical” ideas of the Democrats, which included Lon Nol, the president of the Khmer Republic from 1970 to 1975. There were also many other small parties involved in electioneering for the 1951 elections, but no parties except those mentioned won any seats in the national assembly.

For those involved in the revolutionary struggle, the elections were a show put on by the French for progressive window-dressing. It was not until the demobilization of the Issarak and the exit of most Viet Minh units in 1954 that a truly revolutionary party was created, legitimately, as a counter to the elitist and monarchist parties. It was called the Ganapak Pracheachon, the People’s Party, and members would later constitute a distinct group of people targeted and purged under Pol Pot in the 1970s. Although many individuals of the movement had gone underground, many also chose to conduct the political struggle within the framework of a newly independent Cambodia. By 1955 and the approaching national elections—a requirement of the Geneva Accords—Prince Sihanouk’s influence over the political structure was deeply threatened by a Democrat Party that had become strongly anti-royalist and anti-American with the influx of young members throughout 1953 and 1954. It was during this time of political change that many of the French-educated students began returning to Cambodia, including Saloth Sar (later known as Pol Pot), who “was involved with the movement in a way, but he did not work together with the regular anti-French movement. He chose a different methodology, which was the one he received through his time in France, and so when he returned he came to fight and implement that particular ideology on Khmer soil.”5

Pen Sovann’s education at that time, through affiliation with the Indochina Communist Party, the United Issaraks, and the Khmer People’s Revolutionary party, was much more centered on classical Marxism-Leninism as well as anti-colonial and anti-bourgeois studies. In meeting someone such as Saloth Sar, who had just returned from the complicated political arena of Europe, it would have been noticeable that his political education differed widely from Sovann’s own. “My first impression of Saloth Sar, when I met him in 1950, was that he was an easy-going, humble, friendly Cambodian with good morals. But when he became a staunch Maoist years later, he changed from a rabbit to a tiger.”

Fearing a loss of political power, Prince Sihanouk decided to circumvent the entire electoral process in 1955, and used his monarchist privileges to call for a referendum among the Cambodian people. The referendum gave the Cambodian voters the choice of voting for the King, “if you love him,” and voting against the King, “if you don’t love him.” Once all the votes were tallied up, there were 925,667 votes notched for the King and a near-insignificant 1,834 against. The results empowered Sihanouk to tackle his political opponents and within hours he had ordered the arrest of many editors of Cambodian newspapers. Those arrested had questioned his claim to have single-handedly won independence in 1953, as opposed to the much more realistic independence won through the Geneva Accords of 1954. The arrests were a precursor to the much wider purges to come after Sihanouk abdicated the throne and his “Buddhist socialism,” Sangkum Reastr Niyum, evolved into a strong political force. By the time Pen Sovann formally joined the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party on July 27, 1958, much of the left-wing had been physically liquidated at the behest of Prince Sihanouk, and the remaining members fled either deep into the jungles or to Vietnam. Quite a few of those who survived to see the creation of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea in January 1979 claimed that Sihanouk was responsible for tens of thousands of deaths nationwide.

The difficulties in the revolutionary movement, after the elections of 1955, centered on how to conduct their struggle and survive, and the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party was decimated by the end of 1950s, leaving only Tou Samouth in the highest levels of the party. A secret party congress was held in Phnom Penh, at the train station, on September 30, 1960. Saloth Sar (Pol Pot) and Ieng Sary used the weakness of the surviving party to infiltrate the central committee, alongside Nuon Chea, who became deputy to Tou Samouth. This was a dramatic change in party membership, and further, the name of the party was changed to the Khmer Workers’ Party. The party veterans and the French-educated (later Khmer Rouge) members differed widely on perceptions of the current political state. The veterans tended towards a view of Sihanouk’s neutrality and anti-imperialist stance as positive for the struggle of socialism in Indochina, whereas the Pol Pot clique were aggressively opposed to Sihanouk’s regime in toto. Tou Samouth, Secretary-General of the Khmer Workers’ Party, disappeared in 1962, leaving a power vacuum which Pol Pot filled with those close to him.6 By 1972, Son Ngoc Minh, one of the last original revolutionaries who helped found both the United Issarak Front (1950) and the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (1951), died in Beijing, China, while undergoing medical treatment for high blood pressure at Ieng Sary’s insistance.7 The deaths of Minh and Samouth removed the “last true internationalist Marxists from leadership, leaving a group of ultra-nationalist, extreme Maoist, racists to seize control of the party under the guise of revolutionary politics,” in the view of William Morrison, a longtime resident of Cambodia and political commentator. These extremists would later terrorize the entire nation with their talk of the great “Angkorian past.” The world would come to know them as the Khmer Rouge, a term most likely coined by Prince Sihanouk when speaking of the two major political forces opposing him in the 1960s. (The other was the Blue Khmer, the right-wing equivalent to the “Red” leftists.)

While the era of “political struggle” was ending and fading into that of “armed struggle,” Pen Sovann had risen to the rank of major in the North Vietnamese Army and spent many years in military school and studying politics. By the time the peasant rebellions of 1967–1968 occurred, Sovann and many of his comrades in Vietnam, and within the Khmer Worker’s Party, opposed the political line of the more extremist elements of the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge supported, and some of their opponents claim stirred up, the peasants to a premature rebellion in Samlaut that was later brutally suppressed by the Cambodian government, which had been requisitioning rice from them to the point of starvation. This opposition was never forgotten by the Pol Pot loyalists who would later purge anyone they could without incurring the notice, displeasure, and wrath of the Vietnamese. Someone like Sovann could not be purged at that point, due to his rank and connections to Hanoi. However, by 1973 the Khmer Rouge would purge anyone they chose, believing the “armed struggle” was solely in their hands and not jointly shared with the Vietnamese.

Although the Khmer Workers’ Party—later changed again in 1966 to the Communist Party of Kampuchea—maintained the façade of brotherhood with their Vietnamese counterparts up until full-scale war erupted in late 1977, there were many instances of violence between the two, often initiated by the Khmer Rouge.8 Throughout the 1960s there had been much support from the Vietnamese with military training, supply routes, and arms transportation. By the time the civil war kicked off nationwide in 1968, with the Communist Party of Kampuchea declaring the era of “armed struggle,” there seemed to be a solid bond of fraternity between the two parties.9 In February 1970, Cambodian government forces began shelling North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front camps and bases in the country. The Vietnamese leadership was very confused by this due to Sihanouk’s agreement to allow them sanctuary. Unbeknownst to the Vietnamese, he had also reopened a diplomatic channel to the United States and had ordered local supporters of the Vietnamese killed beginning in 1968. Once the Cambodian government began openly attacking Vietnamese units in the east in 1970, the Vietnamese eventually responded in full force and by the end of 1970 had four North Vietnamese combat divisions in the country. While the war raged on inside Vietnam and also in Cambodia, the political war reached a climax with the coup d’état of March 1970 that firmly put Lon Nol in power and deposed Sihanouk. The Prince was enraged at the audacity of his appointed Prime Minister and immediately went into an alliance with the Khmer Rouge, who he had been ordering killed at every opportunity, and released his famous radio broadcast appealing to “his people” to take up arms against the Lon Nol government and join the Khmer Rouge.

One day before the broadcast, Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong held a lengthy meeting with Sihanouk and gave his backing for the Prince’s desire to call for armed struggle.10 The Prince’s longstanding popularity with many of the peasants quickly brought in hundreds of recruits which were formed into the Vietnamese-trained-and-armed army known as the Khmer Rumdo, or Liberation Khmers. By late 1972, much of the initial Vietnamese aid, in the form of combat soldiers, was recalled back to Vietnam, leaving the Khmer Rouge and Khmer Rumdo to operate on their own. The Khmer Rouge also used that opportunity to disarm many of the Khmer Rumdo, purge Khmer returnees from Vietnam, and hold anti-Vietnamese demonstrations. When Khieu Samphan was asked by a North Vietnamese diplomat about the disarmament and killings, he replied that it was “a CIA plot.” By that point Lon Nol’s military force had been shattered by the North Vietnamese, and much of the countryside surrounding the cities was in the hands of insurgent armies.

Pen Sovann stated that it was in “1970 when I returned to Cambodia that the Khmer Rouge leadership recruited me to work in radio which was broadcast out of Hanoi.” He worked under Chan Si, later his successor in the People’s Republic, and Khieu Thirith, the wife of Ieng Sary, in the Khmer Rouge’s Ministry of Information in charge of the Voice of the United National Front of Kampuchea.11 Because Sovann was working under the orders of the core leadership of the Communist Party of Kampuchea, he was forced to broadcast messages, appeals, and complete tasks he struggled with. “Their ideas were forced on me against my will. And they were against the cultural norms, as well! For example, not allowing the monks to fast as part of their Buddhist calling, forcing people to eat together in groups, and not calling your mother and father ‘mother’ or ‘father,’ but having to call them ‘friend mother’ or ‘friend father’. Ridiculous! Or husbands and wives calling each other ‘friend older brother’ or ‘friend younger sister.’ Those things do not fit with Khmer customs, and the things that were not according to Khmer custom, the real heart of the Khmer, I was against!” When asked if he ever openly criticized the party leaders he said, “Yes, openly. Openly! I pointed in the face of Ieng Sary and Ieng Tharith. At three o’clock in the afternoon on December 22nd, 1972, I said, ‘both of you are being treacherous to your nation!’”12 Sovann knew at this time he could never return to Cambodia while the Khmer Rouge were in control of the party and it is fortunate that he was safe in Hanoi where the radio station was broadcast.

In 1974 Sovann formally broke ties with the regime he had worked for since 1970, and resigned from his position in the Ministry of Information. Through his continued involvement in writing and information sharing between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese, he was kept abreast of all developments in the conflict, even through the period of “the year zero” (1975–1978). When asked if, due to his well-placed position regarding information, he knew of the plan to empty the cities upon Khmer Rouge seizure of power he replied in the affirmative and stated, “I was angry at Ieng Sary and Ieng Tharith, and those with them. When they came [to Hanoi], I stood against them both personally, as a Khmer, and politically.”13

Relations quickly soured on the ground between the Khmer Rouge and their Vietnamese comrades almost immediately after Phnom Penh was taken in early April 1975.14 Fighting broke out between pro-Vietnamese Khmer units and Khmer Rouge, even while the capital was being secured, but it was not until approximately a year after the war had ended that the large-scale slaughter of those who had disagreed with or opposed Pol Pot began. When the premier of a newly unified Vietnam queried Pol Pot, during a visit of his to Hanoi, about the border raids and rumors of Vietnamese killed, he replied: “the soldiers don’t know what they are doing,” implying that it was a simple misunderstanding and not part of their party line. The clashes continued until large-scale border raids by Khmer Rouge into Vietnam began, and hundreds of civilians were butchered. Sovann said that, since his resignation in 1974, he had been trying to convince the Vietnamese party leadership that “the Khmer Rouge were killing their own people and that one day Pol Pot would invade Vietnam. It wasn’t until 1977 that they believed me and asked me to select people in the border areas who were dissatisfied with the Khmer Rouge and were willing to go to Hanoi for training.”

Savonn said it was difficult for him to recruit Khmer to fight Khmer. “For me, it was really hard. Heng Samrin and Hun Sen were Khmer Rouge soldiers. Chea Sim was in the Khmer Rouge organization. All the ones who were involved in the infighting of 1978 were Khmer Rouge.”15

Pen Sovann was a founding leader of the Kampuchean United Front for Salvation on November 25, 1978. On January 1, 1979, the United Front, along with divisions of the People’s Army of Vietnam, invaded Democratic Kampuchea and freed the people from what the Front’s President Heng Samrin called a “neo-slavery regime that has nothing to do with socialism.” The liberation of the country from the “Pol Pot–Ieng Sary clique”—as the Khmer Rouge were called during the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, from 1979 to 1989—was concluded by January 7, now a national holiday. Most of the remaining Khmer Rouge soldiers were pushed deep into the jungle along the Thai border. Pen Sovann served as General Secretary of the Kampuchean Revolutionary People’s Party from January 5, 1979, until December 1, 1981, and Prime Minister from June 1981 until December 5, 1981 (which oddly enough was four days after he had been arrested and sent to Vietnam).16 Although expressing gratitude to the Vietnamese for their cooperation and help, he consistently attempted to keep Le Duc Tho, the chief Vietnamese advisor to the new government of the People’s Republic, to his promise not to interfere in the internal affairs of Cambodia. Sovann says that Duc Tho’s promise was almost immediately broken and was a cause of tension between the two.

Later, Le Duc Tho visited the USSR and upon his return, Sovann was imprisoned in Ha Dong prison near Hanoi until 1988, after which he was kept under house arrest until 1992 when he was permitted to return to Cambodia.17 Between 1981 and 1984, many of Sovann’s comrades who had left with him in 1954 to train in Vietnam were also purged or imprisoned by the People’s Party. One individual that many believe was poisoned was Chan Si, one of Sovann’s longest and most trusted comrades, who had succeeded him as Prime Minster from 1981 to 1984.18

Knowing that Sovann is reported to have told other interviewers about his disbelief in communism by 1981, I questioned him at some length about Marx, Marxism, and the Khmer Marxist Tou Samouth. “I can still say that he (Marx) analyzed history correctly, but the ones who used it as a means for seizing power used it destructively. Their methods were wrong 180 degrees around.” As for Tou Samouth, Sovann said, “What he knew and spoke of in his speeches was correct. For the working class, he spoke what was true: that we want to come out from under the oppression of the rich is an undeniable truth. But those who attempt to implement their version of socialism practice it incorrectly. Most importantly, if the leadership uses it (Marxism) properly, then they will have the support of the people. If they are not following it, the people know it.”19

Today Pen Sovann is still involved in politics and has lent his support to many different opposition parties since his return in 1992. He has retained his solid personal relationship with two of the three leaders, Chea Sim and Heng Samrin, of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, who both thanked him on his return to Cambodia in 1992 for helping to establish them in politics and for all his contributions made to the Khmer people. When asked a few final questions about his future in politics, his goals, and what he wants future generations to remember, Sovann said, “Well, I’m getting older. But my goals are to see the leadership changed and power given over to the people. The people need real actual rights. These are my only desires.”

Sources

The research for this biography has principally come from interviews with survivors, former Khmer Rouge and People’s Republic of Kampuchea soldiers, Pen Sovann himself, as well as the following books:

Chanda, Nayan, Brother Enemy (New York: Macmillan, 1988)

Chandler, David P., Brother Number One (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2000)

Chandler, David P., The Tragedy of Cambodian History (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 1994)

Kiernan, Ben, How Pol Pot Came to Power (London: Verso, 1985)

Kiernan, Ben and Chanthou Boua, eds., Peasants and Politics in Kampuchea, 1942–1981 (London: Zed Books, 1982)

Slocomb, Margaret, The People’s Republic of Kampuchea 1979–1989 (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2003)

Vickery, Michael, Cambodia 1975–1982 (Boston: South End Press, 1984)

Footnotes

  1. * Carey McWilliams, Education of Carey McWilliams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 290.

Notes

  1. Sovann told the author, “the Japanese planted many Kapok tree farms and created oil-bearing tree plantations.”
  2. “We would go with a small platoon of soldiers to the area of the fortress. If any French were met on the way, they were engaged. If no resistance was encountered and we were able to get close enough without being spotted, a signal was given and my cousin would know to meet them at our prearranged location. We did this simply to get letters into the fortress.”
  3. During the Congress, Sovann was “acting as a bodyguard for important revolutionary figures in the independence struggle, and served as a messenger and secretary.” The minutes of the meeting were given to him “to hold, print out and distribute to all the provinces.”
  4. Sovann stated to the author that, “the people in Sihanouk’s government were the same ones as in the French-controlled government. They used their power in the same ways: to oppress the farmers and the poor just like governments do now in the twenty-first century.”
  5. Sovann claimed that Pol Pot returned to Cambodia from France with an ideology, focused solely on the role of the peasantry, that in time seemed to those involved in the anti-colonial struggle as akin to what later was frequently termed Maoism.
  6. When Sovann was asked about Tou Samouth’s death he replied, “I know what happened to him, and the exact day he died, and how they tricked him. Pol Pot was responsible. Once he died there was infighting and killing for power.” This assertion is much in dispute.
  7. Sovann claimed that Ieng Sary had a direct hand in Son Ngoc Minh’s death in China while he was undergoing medical care and this was the final blow to remove the “old guard” from the party and allow Pol Pot and his follower’s full control.
  8. According to a September 1970 U.S. Central Intelligence Agency report, Khmer Rouge troops fired on Vietnamese forces from behind while the Vietnamese were engaging a Lon Nol unit in Kompong Thom.
  9. Documents and communiqués in the Vietnamese party reveal a strong displeasure that the leadership of the Cambodian party was in the hands of “Maoists” and warranted “keeping a careful watch.”
  10. A few days after that fateful broadcast was made, Vietcong units moved into Eastern Cambodia playing the recorded message in villages and distributing leaflets of Sihanouk’s appeal.
  11. When asked about what his main tasks were at time Sovann replied, “I founded the Ranaksey radio station, led the whole radio project, and wrote radio programs. I also wrote the music for the radio station: songs such as “Victory in Kompong Thom,” which became a widely sung song and is still remembered today by old people.”
  12. The “violations of cultural norms” that Sovann protested against were not formally the party line at the time he led the radio project.
  13. “They produced those documents in 1974, which is why I started to decry them. Their policy was the ‘10/0’ policy for victory. That meant not having rich or poor, no religion, no customs, no money, no people, and no cities. That is what they meant by ‘10/0.’ To be involved in 10/0 was to be in agreement with their politics. 10/0 really just meant that there isn’t anything of the old ways! No religion, no morals, no customs. No meetings, no markets. Before the Khmer Rouge actually took power all of this was written up in documents.”
  14. Both political parties maintained formal relations up until 1977.
  15. Sovann said, “It was hard to know the condition of their heart. So how could the people fight against them? But, truthfully, the people were angry because the leaders had killed so many of their children, grandchildren and relatives. All of those men were seen as the ones who had been killing their countrymen, so I was afraid the people would come against me as well, so I used transparency and good morals in my politics to win over the hearts of people. They people were angry! The military had killed so many of their countrymen!”
  16. Sovann claims that his arrest was due to his “strong stance about Khmer self-reliance” and the fact that this was an irritation to Le Duc Tho.
  17. Sovann told the Cambodia Daily in 1997 that he holds two party leaders at that time, Hun Sen and Say Phouthang, responsible for his imprisonment.
  18. Chen Si died in Moscow, and when asked about the considerable controversy surrounding Chan Si’s death Sovann stated, “I know all about that matter! I know the hour, the day, the month, the year, and everything, but I cannot speak about it right now! I need to consider the safety of my family.”
  19. “The power they (current governments) use these days, is used differently than what was promoted before about the poor rising against the rich. The poor don’t use force these days. They are all poor alike, not unified politically. And the rich oppress them.”
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