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Exile officially ends for Angkor advocate

Exile officially ends for Angkor advocate

Cultural preservationist Moeung Sonn, who had been living in self-imposed exile since 2009, arrived back in Cambodia yesterday. He had fled disinformation charges arising from his complaints over proposed light installations at Angkor Wat.

“Not only I, but heritage conservation supporters . . . are all happy today,” Sonn told reporters upon arriving at Phnom Penh International Airport. “I will continue to do my job related to Khmer heritage conservation.”

Sonn left Cambodia about six years ago after a court sentenced him to two years’ prison and fined him 15 million riel ($3,750) for propagating “disinformation” about a proposed lighting installation at Angkor Wat. Sonn claimed that the fixtures were damaging the structure, but the government steadfastly dismissed his concerns and instead pursued a lawsuit.

But on May 8, King Norodom Sihamoni signed a royal pardon in the wake of a chance meeting between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Sonn in Kuala Lumpur last month, paving the way for Sonn’s return.

Sonn, the president of the Khmer Civilization Foundation (KCF) and former member of the now-defunct Sam Rainsy Party, said he will now reorganise the KCF’s infrastructure.

“Individuals have the right to be involved in a political party . . . I will continue my politics not to [pursue] power, but to conserve cultural heritage,” said Sonn. “We will not criticise, will not attack each other – but we will [conduct] dialogue for unity and serve the nation.”

Sonn reckoned that Hun Sen perhaps now realised his work was not political in nature but focused on tourism, environmental protection and preserving Cambodia’s rich past.

Bun Narith, general director of the Apsara Authority, which manages the Angkor Wat site, could not be reached for comment. But government spokesman Phay Siphan said the government would welcome Sonn’s homecoming, adding that he hoped he would not spread “disinformation” again.

“I think that Sonn has gained experience from his self-exile,” he said. “We welcome him, and he has the same rights as other [Cambodian] citizens and can serve the nation. We hope that Sonn will [participate] in the culture of dialogue, and will no longer [disseminate] disinformation and create problems for society . . . We hope he will partner with the government to deal with cultural conservation.”

Sonn, meanwhile, reiterated that the pardon was a result of the recent “culture of dialogue” between opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen.

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