Large gusts of wind tossed dust, leaves and petals into the sky yesterday on Rue Yougoslavie as grave-faced senior officials trickled into the home of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who passed away after a long illness at the age of 66 in a Beijing hospital.
In the hours before the announced time of death – 6:32pm – ceremonial preparations were already underway at the longtime senior leader’s home. A Council of Ministers letter circulated shortly thereafter revealed the government had granted $750,000 from the national budget for a funeral on the orders of Sok An’s close ally, Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Sok An, who was given the prestigious title “Samdech Vibol Panha”, meaning “Lord of Greatest Wisdom” just days before his death, had long been considered Hun Sen’s right-hand man.
Born in Takeo on April 16, 1950, a young Sok An delved deeply into the world of education, becoming a teacher and later a principal at a school.
Though the specifics of his time during the Khmer Rouge era remain cloudy, according to Council of Ministers spokeman Phay Siphan Sok An stayed in Cambodia and survived the brutal regime, which slaughtered intellectuals as part of its cultural upheaval.
In the early 1980s, he worked closely with Hun Sen at the Foreign Affairs Ministry in the government established by the Vietnamese forces that ousted the Khmer Rouge.
Their political alliance was cemented further by the marriage of their children: Sok An’s son Sok Puthyvuth – head of the Cambodia Rice Federation – is married to Hun Sen’s daughter Hun Maly.
“Sok An played a pivotal role in Hun Sen’s rise and consolidation of power”, Hun Sen’s Cambodia author Sebastian Strangio said yesterday via email.
“Sok An became a trusted vertex in the networks of patronage radiating out from Hun Sen and his family, controlling so many administrative bodies and state institutions that he was likened to a Hindu god with 48 arms,” he said.
Among the most high-profile of those positions were roles with the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority and the Apsara Authority, which oversees the Angkor temples.
An effective negotiator, Sok An also played key roles in border disputes as well as leading the taskforce that ultimately established the Khmer Rouge tribunal. His niece, Chea Leang, is a prosecutor at the court who has pushed back against international prosecutors over decisions to try Khmer Rouge cadre below the highest echelons already on trial.
His life was not without controversy – corruption claims have dotted his career. According to Global Witness, in the mid-1990s, he awarded over 7 million hectares of forest in contracts that greatly favoured the interests of private logging companies. This “formed the basis of the disastrous destruction of forests … at great cost to Cambodia’s environment and little benefit to Cambodia’s economy”.
Strangio notes that Sok An became wealthy and influential in service to Hun Sen and his family “a fact that prompted jealousy from factional rivals, and eventually saw his powers and responsibilities slashed after the disastrous 2013 election”.
Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan last night described Sok An’s death as “a huge loss for the CPP”.
“We regret the loss of our comrade, who was a senior officer participating in building the country,” he said.
“We have seen his outstanding achievements in the fight with Thailand in placing the Preah Vihear temple on the [UNESCO] world heritage list.”
National Assembly spokesman Leng Peng Long, who worked closely with Sok An for a decade, said he used to be a young monk at a pagoda in Takeo, and that his contribution to Cambodia’s intellectual and cultural heritage could not be understated.
“We are very shocked and saddened, because he was very intelligent and served Cambodia well,” he said. “I have seen that he was a very, very kind person. He had high virtue, therefore we are very upset for losing Samdech Sok An.”
David Scheffer, the UN secretary-general’s special expert for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, described Sok An as “a tenacious but very respectful negotiator”.
“He was generous with his hospitality, inviting me to his jackfruit farm outside Phnom Penh for working sessions in a gazebo atop his fish pond or to his Phnom Penh residence surrounded by his exotic birds.” He described Sok An as “critical to the quest to bring justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime”, adding that the tribunal might have “collapsed” without him.
“There were many moments when negotiations could have turned so sour that the ECCC would have come crashing down. But Sok An never permitted that to happen, because he was willing to negotiate compromises in the face of countervailing pressures elsewhere in the government.”
Beyond the political arena, Sok An’s name was ubiquitous in the illicit realm of cockfighting, a pastime for which Hun Sen publicly rebuked him on at least one occasion. Proponents of the now-banned bloodsport held him the highest regard, attributing near-mythic quality to his stock of fighting birds in past interviews with The Post.
A broad funeral committee, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin and comprising 13 subcommittees, will see mourners pay their respects through a procession and a Buddhist ceremony in the coming days.
Sok An is survived by his wife, Theng Ay Anny, and five children – his daughter, Sok Soma, and sons Sok Puthyvuth, Sok Sokan, Sok Soken and Sok Sangvar.