It was with an ashen face that Prime Minister Hun Sen approached the drapes of the funeral tent to pay his last respects to his long-time political ally and deputy Sok An.
Wreath after wreath of white carnations and yellow lilies filed into Sok An’s Rue Yugoslavie residence yesterday afternoon, as warbling funerary tones intermingled with a brassy military beat.
A long string of sombre, high-profile mourners, decked in black and white, followed the premier’s suit.
At about 5am yesterday morning, the plane from Beijing carrying the body of the late Sok An, minister of the Council of Ministers, touched down in Phnom Penh. The premier was by his side.
“Everyone cried, even the prime minister. It was like a shock,” said government spokesman Phay Siphan, who was present as Sok An’s body was lowered from the plane, along with a throng of other officials.
“[We] didn’t expect the worst thing to happen to him . . . we don’t understand why it happened so fast.”
A motorcade then brought Sok An’s remains to his home on Rue Yugoslavie, with the premier in tow. A second day of paying respects will continue today, followed by a hair-shaving ritual on Saturday.
At 7am on Sunday morning, Sok An’s body will be carried in a procession to Wat Botum Park and cremated. Some $750,000 has been laid aside from the national budget for the lavish affair – a leaked figure that stoked the ire of the opposition and rights groups.
Indeed, in the latest torrent of leaked opposition phone conversations via the “Seiha” Facebook page, Lim Kimya, a CNRP lawmaker from Kampong Thom, questioned the $750,000 cost – which is more than 400 times the amount a minimum-wage garment worker makes in a year.
“What right [do they have] to use the money to hold the funeral for him and what law [allows it]?” Kimya said in the recording.
Reached yesterday, Kimya confirmed the audio was authentic and stressed the conversation with Sam Rainsy Party Senator Hing Yoeun – in which he also called Sok An the “boss of the cockfight” and said he “strangled people to be rich” – was a private one.
“I consider this country as [a] jungle, and the one who has power can tap and release whatever they want to the Seiha page,” he said.
“The prosecutor . . . should take action and investigate to find out who is behind Seiha in order to question him.”
But Kimya did double down on his criticism of the funeral’s expense, claiming by comparison that $50,000 was set aside for last year’s funeral of the country’s first post-Khmer Rouge prime minister, Pen Sovann. The Post was unable to independently verify this last night.
Siphan also defended the cost, saying the repatriation, motorcade, catering and cremation were all expensive, and that Sok An deserved the gesture as he had been made a “Samdech”, or “Lord”, in the days before his passing.
“It is a lot, but based on his countless achievements, we give this back to him, to respect this national hero,” Siphan said.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson, however, said it was absurd for the government to spend exorbitant amounts on a funeral for Sok An – “the supreme Hun Sen loyalist” – given his family’s personal wealth.
Yet warm tributes continued to flow yesterday, with King Norodom Sihamoni and the Queen Mother Norodom Monineath releasing statements offering their condolences to Sok An’s family.
Hun Sen yesterday took to Facebook to honour Sok An’s “sacrifice”.“This is a huge loss of the outstanding hero for the nation,” he wrote.
Uch Kim An, former Cambodian ambassador to France, expressed sadness and cited Sok An’s achievements in negotiating the Paris Peace Agreement and putting the Preah Vihear temple on the UNESCO World Heritage list, among others.
Long-time adviser Helen Jarvis said the Samdech title bestowed on Sok An days before his death was fitting and praised his “legendary” achievements in many fields.
“He was somebody that valued the advice and opinions of others around him,” she said. Constitutional Council head Im Chhun Lim described him as a diplomatic talent.
“We have lost a hero . . . he fulfilled all his work physically and spiritually,” he said.