Pen Sovann - now leader of the Cambodia National Sustaining Party and author of Pen Sovann and the Fundamental Reason of Cambodia's History.
By Bou Saroeun and Patrick Falby talk to Pen Sovann, prime minister in
the Vietnamese-installed Cambodian government for six months in 1981 until his arrest
and incarceration for ten years.
Tell us about your life leading up to involvement with Ta Mok and the Khmer Issarak.
I was born April 15, 1936 in Chantep village, Saroung commune, Tram Kok district,
Takeo province. I quit school when I was 15 years old and joined the Issarak movement.
When I joined this movement I was under Ta Mok, known then as Ek Choeun. I was Ta
Mok's secretary, bodyguard and messenger.
In 1952 I joined the fighting in the southwest zone. When the Indochina War ended
in 1954, I was sent to Vietnam for military and political training. I finished my
training and joined the Khmer Rouge movement on March 18, 1970. I was in charge of
information from 1970 to 1974.
Early in 1974 Ieng Sary and Pol Pot wanted to kill me, so I fled to Vietnam. They
wanted to kill me because I didn't carry out their dictatorship policies. When I
was back in Vietnam, I found out the Khmer Rouge was killing people, so I started
to build a group to fight against the regime. The members appointed me to be head
of the movement to fight against the Khmer Rouge on March 5, 1978.
On November 15, 1978 I formed the [resistance] front and was the first person to
lead it. I was appointed president of the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party
(KPRP) as well as commander-in-chief and vice-president of the KPRP council committee.
Finally I was made prime minister in the People's Republic of Kampuchea.
In December 1981 the KPRP and the Vietnamese People's Party arrested me and jailed
me for 10 years and 52 days. They accused me of three things. First they said I created
a free market which was against communist guidelines. Second, they accused me of
discrimination and standing as a nationalist for not wanting the Vietnamese to live
in Cambodia. The third was that I did not respect the orders given by the Vietnamese.
The peace agreement [of November 1991] led to my release from jail. That was at 7
a.m. on January 25, 1992. I am now president of the National Sustaining Party. My
personal history is written in my book which has been printed in the US.
What was your involvement with the Khmer Rouge, where were you based, and where
did it all go wrong?
I joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970. Our base was in Banlung, Ratanakkiri but it
was always moving around. There were three Khmer Rouge policies which made me realize
that I could not stay with them: the first was the concept that there was to be no
rich, no poor, no money, no schools and that we were to destroy all infrastructure.
Second, they completely implemented the revolutionary policy from China. The third
reason was that they destroyed intellectuals. I felt that because of this, the regime
was unable to lead the country towards development so I decided to leave the Khmer
When did you first meet Hun Sen and Chea Sim? What was your impression of them
then, and how do you regard them now?
I met Hun Sen in September 1978 and met Chea Sim October 12, 1978. Past political
biases don't bother me. Our aim was to gather the Khmer people and create a group
to fight and rescue the country from this murderous regime. But I want to be clear
about this: I appointed Hun Sen to be a member of the front, and he was in charge
of the youth.
At that time the Vietnamese were pressuring me to appoint Hun Sen to be the minister
of foreign affairs. I didn't want to appoint him to that position because he was
too young, he had no experience, he had lost one eye and he didn't know any other
Le Duc Tho, who controlled the government, appointed Ngo Dean to be Hun Sen's advisor.
I don't know what they taught him or what they instructed him to do. Until mid-1981
the Vietnamese pressured me to appoint him as the deputy prime minister.
As regards Hun Sen's policies, you can see them for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
Hun Sen is against me and didn't allow me to join the CPP because I was against the
Vietnamese coming to stay in Cambodia. After I was freed from jail, I tried to contact
Hun Sen and Chea Sim, but they didn't want to speak to me.
Many people opposed to the CPP accuse the party of taking orders from Hanoi. What
is the relationship between the CPP and Hanoi?
Publicly, everyone in the world can see they have a good relationship. But they
also visit each other privately, and the Vietnamese military often visits the Tuol
Krosang base. The steering committee of the CPP also has a relationship with Vietnam.
Are there Vietnamese agents working in the current government?
After the Vietnamese withdrew [in 1989], some Vietnamese government officials
stayed working in the provinces, but I don't know what they were doing.
Was there any Vietnamese involvement in the fighting during July 5-6, 1997?
I saw Vietnamese people involved in the fighting. Three days before the fighting,
Vietnamese construction workers put on military uniforms and then fought in Phnom
Penh and in other places such as O'Smach and Anlong Veng. At that time I was staying
in Samnong Dopei, where I recognized the [Vietnamese] com-mander's face very well.
He was fluent in Khmer.
As someone who knew the Khmer Rouge leaders, what should be done about the trial
The Khmer Rouge leaders who were involved in the killings between 1975 and 1979
should be put on trial at an independent court subject to national and international
standards [of justice]. If there is no trial, millions of Cambodian people who were
killed will have no justice at all.
Another aspect is that if there is no trial, politicians will think they can kill
people without getting punished. I have sent emails to the international community,
[UN secretary-general] Kofi Annan, and the EU to push the government to hold the
And do you think Liberation Day should be celebrated?
January 7 was the day when the country was freed from the Khmer Rouge regime and
the people were liberated from the killing, but it cannot be made a national day
because this day also let the Vietnamese violate and take land from Cambodia. Quite
a number of Khmer people died to liberate the country, so we have to find justice
for them by simply respecting this day.
How did you get removed as Prime Minister and end up in jail?
Hun Sen and Say Phou Thang led Vietnamese troops and [the special police unit]
A-21 to arrest me at 17:45 on December 2, 1981. They surrounded my house with 12
tanks and about 900 troops. They handcuffed me, covered my face with a black cloth,
threw me in a car and drove off.
The first accusation was made by Le Duc Tho, a top advisor to the Cambodian government
at that time. Phan Dinh Vinh came to tell me that I would remain in prison in Vietnam
for the rest of my life. Each time they transferred me they covered the car windows,
so I could not see where I was located, but it may have been in Haiphong province.
What were the conditions of your imprisonment?
Political prisoners were not tortured like criminal prisoners. They locked me
in a 15 square meter room with a small [ventilation] hole in the ceiling and I could
not see anything outside.
They gave me $5 a month for food. They left the light on 24 hours a day, which can
affect the brain because it meant we were unable to sleep. Some prisoners died from
their mental illnesses.
At night, they mixed diesel with kerosene in the lamp to make the room fill with
smoke. I don't want to talk much about my life in the prison because it affects my
mind and I won't be able to sleep.
Were any American soldiers there?
I had a meeting in the Pentagon and I met the head of the American MIA (Missing
In Action) program. We talked about the Americans who survived, and that some of
them were taken by the [former] Soviet Union. I also saw what kinds of jets or planes
were shot down in Vietnam.
I was one of the high ranking officers in the army who received training in Vietnam,
so I know where the US soldiers were attacked and I know also where they kept the
Amer-ican soldiers prisoner. I'm not sure if there were MIAs near my cell, but the
guards said there were some nearby. They were not released.
When I went to Washington DC and met with the MIA head for two hours, we discussed
how to find MIAs in Vietnam and in the former Soviet Union. Up to now I have heard
I am happy to cooperate with them to find American soldiers. According to the guards,
the soldiers were held in a village about ten kilometers west of Hanoi. The Chinese
also wanted the American POWs but the Vietnamese didn't want to give any to them.
So only the Soviet Union took some American officers. I told all of this to four
American officials at the Pentagon to whom I spoke for nine hours.
Hun Sen has made clear his feelings about the UN not recognizing the government
in the 1980s. Do you share his opinion?
At that time we needed support from people around the world to recognize that
we were survivors. However the international community and the UN didn't recognize
us, because they said our government was installed by the Vietnamese who had invaded
I was the man who asked the Vietnamese Communist Party to help in our fight against
the Khmer Rouge, who were killing the people. If I had not suggested it, they would
not have come. But I didn't want them to control us. At that time Hun Sen was my
foreign affairs minister. I instructed him to urge the UN to recognize us, and we
could talk about Vietnamese troops withdrawing later.
Will your book be available here?
I want to sell it here, but it is expensive: it costs around 60,000 riel, although
people in the US can afford to buy it. I plan to print 10,000 books in Khmer and
20,000 in English. I brought some books here as souvenirs for other politicians.
My book contains the truth.
In the early 1990s, you said you knelt down and begged to re-join the CPP, then
you wanted to join Funcinpec. Why didn't either let you join?
I did not ask to join the CPP, but I also did not betray the party. Say Chhum
[the CPP's secretary-general] appointed me as a CPP advisor in Takeo. When I went
to see the people in the country, many of them liked me.
I was popular and that scared the CPP. In June 1995 they accused me of being involved
with the Sam Rainsy Party [then known as the Khmer Nation Party]. Then they ousted
me without a proper reason and no papers were signed.
Later I saw the signature of Khun Kim, the former deputy governor of Kandal province,
on the termination forms, which was strange because I was in Takeo. I met with Prince
Ranariddh and discussed finding a way to bring democracy to Cambodia. He told me
that I should form a political party and Funcinpec would finance it. I did not join
Funcinpec, but we have the same goals: to respect democracy and the will of the people.
[My party] was involved in the 1998 general election. In my opinion it was down to
cheating that it won no seats in the National Assembly.
Where is Cambodian politics headed?
Cambodian politics has the head of a chicken, but the arse of a duck. They speak
about democracy and multiple political parties, but they practice communist ways.
You've had a long and varied life. What do you rate as your most significant achievement
and what are your ambitions for the future?
My most significant achievement is forming the group that liberated the people
from the killings. Second, I called for all the people to go back to their villages
to make a living.
During my tenure in government there was no corruption and no dictatorship. I also
called on the international community to help Cambodia in regards to health, education,
agriculture and industry. At that time the people believed and respected my government
because we respected the will of the people.
In the future I hope to bring true democracy to my country and build a good relationship
with developed countries, particularly the USA. I also want to build a good relationship
with neighboring countries so they will respect the sovereignty of our territory.
I am strongly against corruption in society.
We should not have dictators as leaders. Also I want to eradicate partialism and
open the country to foreign investors. Our laws need to measure up to international
standards, and we need to improve the quality of the armed forces to protect the
country by asking the US for help in developing the army.