In a gilt coffin glittering in the harsh Sunday morning sun, the body of late deputy prime minister Sok An snaked through the emptied streets of Phnom Penh and came to rest at a flower-laden pyre.
The procession and cremation ceremony spared neither pomp nor circumstance for the longtime right-hand man of Prime Minister Hun Sen, though after public outcry over the $750,000 price tag affixed to the display, the Cambodian People’s Party announced it will be picking up the bill.
The staggering number of roles and positions held by Sok An during his political career – which earned him comparisons to a many-armed Hindu deity – were canvassed in a eulogy delivered by Senate President Say Chhum.
“The death of Samdech Vibol Panha Sok An is the loss of a highly charismatic figure who was a rare human resource,” Chhum said.
He said Sok An had been receiving treatment in Singapore since July, and was transferred to Beijing in early March before passing away on Wednesday at the age of 66.
Some of Sok An’s constituents from Takeo province were in attendance to mourn his passing.
“We considered him our hero for the nation,” said Oeng Nhanh, 70. “We are very sad and nothing can compare to his loss.”
Fellow Takeo resident Ouch Vannarith remembered Sok An as someone who built monasteries, roads, bridges and canals. “He was a patriot and helped people by sacrificing his time and physical [health] to develop the country, especially in Takeo,” he said.
Sok An’s son, Sok Puthyvuth, who is married to the premier’s daughter, Hun Maly, yesterday spoke not of his father, but of his father-in-law.
“On behalf of the family, I would like to thank Samdech Techo [Hun Sen] ... who tried his best to help the family by focusing, both physically and with his heart, on organising the ceremony from beginning to end,” he said, dressed in orange robes with his hair shorn in mourning.
Yesterday’s lavish funeral had been the source of some controversy after its leaked cost – 3 billion riel, or about $750,000 – last week drew the ire of the opposition and rights groups.
But a day before the funeral, the ruling party took steps to eliminate what could have been a potentially damaging talking point ahead of coming commune elections.
“In recent days, I have seen the media has published that the government decided to withdraw 3 billion riel of the state budget for organising the funeral for Samdech Vibol Panha Sok An,” Senate President Say Chhum wrote in a letter on Saturday.
The letter, which he said represented the will of the ruling party, requested that the prime minister “return the money to the state budget while the Cambodia People’s Party will cover all the expenses for the funeral”.
The prime minister signed off on the request the same day.
Social analyst Meas Ny yesterday said while the decision to reimburse the government coffers showed they had correctly “read the reaction of the public”, but it may prove “too little, too late”.
“People may be wondering if the money was really diverted or if it’s just propaganda,” he said yesterday. “I appreciate this on some level at least it can be returned for the people and the national budget.”
But Ny cautioned there was often “little difference” between the government funds and those of the party, alluding to soft political campaigning in which government gifts of rice are frequently presented as largesse from the CPP.
“[This step] indicates only that the CPP has a lot of money, but where does it come from?” Ny asked.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the party did not want to dip into the national budget “because when too much is taken, it will make a problem and ... we do not want some brothers and sisters who do not understand the issue to be unhappy”.
Eysan added that the sudden withdrawal of three-quarters of a million dollars from the party’s funds would cause “no problem” for the upcoming election campaign, as regular donations come in from party members and an election budget had already been prepared.
Meanwhile, Mu Sochua, deputy president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, sought to put politics aside yesterday, declining to address the debate over the funeral’s cost. Several other representatives from her party were also in attendance at yesterday’s ceremony with the notable exception of president Kem Sokha, in Thailand for a medical check-up to honour Sok An’s family’s grief.
“It was a moment of sadness and a moment of the Khmers united as people sharing the pain,” she said, adding the deceased’s knowledge and skills as a negotiator had made a “significant contribution” to Cambodia.
As the ceremony drew to an end, National Assembly President Heng Samrin lowered a lit torch, setting off short-lived fireworks and plumes of smoke as well as the funerary flames.
Later, just before dusk, Sok An’s ashes were taken out on the Tonle Chaktomuk, where the four rivers meet, and scattered.