PEN SOVANN OUT TO SETTLE OLD SCORES
BY CHRISTINE CHAUMEAU
MEETING Pen Sovann these days can involve a bit of cloak and dagger. First, you go to Prince Norodom Ranariddh's residence, wait there for two hours, then find a car to take you to Funcinpec general Nhek Bun Chhay's house and wait there. After a while, another car comes to drive you to a safe-house protected by bodyguards.
At this empty house with new white tiles, a sofa and two armchairs, Pen Sovann finally arrives. From a quiet life in rural Takeo, Sovann is now back in the political limelight of Phnom Penh.
Although he's been out of sight for years, to Khmers he needs little introduction. A Vietnamese protege in the 1980s, Sovann's story is a well-known one of a rapid rise to power, followed by one of the hardest plummets from grace.
The former head of the Cambodian communist party, Sovann displeased his Vietnamese masters and paid the price--10 years in detention in Hanoi.
Now, after a quiet four years in Takeo since being allowed to return to Cambodia, the 62-year-old is pondering a political comeback.
Amid government in-fighting, Funcinpec is wooing--and protecting--the former communist chief who makes plain his intense dislike for Hun Sen.
If the amount of space devoted to him in the Khmer newspapers in recent weeks is anything to go by, the name of Pen Sovann has not been forgotten.
"I sincerely serve the development of the country. I am a true nationalist. I still have ability and knowledge. I have good health. People still love and respect me," Sovann says, listing the reasons why he believes the time is right for a return to politics.
Sovann has been fighting for most of his life, and been through most of the battles of Cambodia's recent history.
He joined the Issarak independence movement when he was 13, and later joined the Communist Party of Indochina in 1951. He served as a bodyguard and secretary to Ta Mok, who was to later become one of the most feared commanders of the Khmer Rouge.
"I went my way and Ta Mok went his own way,' Sovann says simply of the pair's split in 1954 after independence was achieved.
Of his former master he notes that Ta Mok was to become known for being meaner and more ruth less than Pol Pot. "He does [the bad jobs] himself," he says.
After attending cadre training school in Vietnam, Sovann returned, Cambodia in 1970 and rallied to the anti-Lon Nol resistance. But in 1974--before the Khmer Rouge seized power--he quit Cambodia and returned to Vietnam.
"Their revolution was different from any other," he says of the KR. "They did not allow the Khmer to have culture, religion, money or live with their family.
"At the end of 1977 I came to organize and regroup Cambodians living along the Lao and Vietnam borders, hoping to strengthen them to topple the genocidal regime," Sovann says.
Along with Heng Samrin and Hun Sen, Sovann was brought to power by Vietnam after its late 1978 invasion to evict the Pol Pot regime. He was appointed the Secretary-General of the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea, and was initially the vice-president in charge of national defense.
In July 1981 he was made the head of the government, in a reign that lasted only six months. Arrested in Dec 1981, he spent seven years in a Hanoi jail and another three under house arrest.
As he tells his story, at times his voice becomes a monotone--seemingly saying what people expect him to say. But when he speaks of his imprisonment, more than a tinge of anger emerges.
"Hun Sen and [fellow senior communist party official] Say Phou Thang were responsible for my imprisonment," he says.
Sovann remembers well his arrest and subsequent jailing in Vietnam. Asked what reason was given to him for his arrest, he recalls with precision the letter he got when he asked for an explanation of his imprisonment:
"I received the response from the political bureau of [communist party] at 8am on Feb 12, 1982. It said: 'You should not ask the People's Revolutionary Party about anything at all. All of your mistakes you can understand better than anyone else. Especially, you are narrow-minded, extremely nationalistic and against the Vietnamese. Based on the above mistakes. the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea cannot let you return to Cambodia.' This letter was signed for the central committee on Feb 6 by Say Phou Thong. It had the party stamp."
Sovann doesn't like to talk much about his days of detention in Hanoi, commenting only that: "I was in a 15 square-meter cell. I was cut off from the outside world and they only gave me five dollars a month to live."
But he has not overcome his hate for those who he considers betrayed him. He recalls the time when he asked that Hun Sen be assigned to lead the youth section of the party.
"I gathered all those people. I taught them their role, how to lead a country. I taught Hun Sen."
Given his freedom and permitted back to Cambodia in 1992, Sovann is also bitter about the treatment he has received since then.
Given a house beside a lake in Snor village of Takeo, "I had nothing when I arrived," he said last month at a Funcinpec-organized press conference.
"People gave me some rice to eat and soap to wash. I raised chickens, pigs and grew bananas and vegetables for food."
Sovann noted that his name was never mentioned as one of the founders of the Vietnamese-backed National Salvation Front which liberated Cambodia from Pol Pot, nor as a former president of the communist party. By being sent to live next to the lake, "I was mocked", he said.
Ironically, he acknowledged that he repeatedly asked to rejoin his former colleagues in the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), the successor to the People's Revolutionary Party. Every time he was rejected, until finally in 1994 he was appointed an advisor to the Takeo CPP branch.
When Sam Rainsy formed the Khmer Nation Party in late 1995, and Sovann's name was rumored as a possible recruit, he lost that position and said that Hun Sen also threatened to confiscate his house and car.
But still, he told the press conference, "I kneel and beg to join [the CPP] by writing once or twice a year to Hun Sen and Chea Sim. Recently, I asked Chea Sim whether I could serve the CPP."
Now, to take revenge on those who spurned him, Sovann is apparently ready to accept Funcinpec's help to form his own party. But even Funcinpec, it seems, does not want him inside their party.
"Funcinpec clearly said: 'I will let you live in my commune, but not in my house. You can create your own house, your own party'," Sovann says.
He plans to launch his party by the end of May, but says he has to find money and an office first.
He is convinced he will receive the backing of some of his former friends within CPP, especially those with "anti-Vietnamese feeling", and claims to have already received a letter of support from some CPP members.
Of the Hun Sen faithful, however, he knows he will make no new friends. "[They] will not support me--those who follow Hun Sen's philosophy, which is only self-interest, nepotism and power."
Phnom Penh Post - May 16-29, 1997 - pp. 6