MEETING Pen Sovann these days can involve a bit of cloak and dagger. First, you go
to Prince Norodom Ranariddh's residence, wait there for two hours, then find a car
to take you to Funcinpec general Nhek Bun Chhay's house and wait there. After a while,
another car comes to drive you to a safe-house protected by bodyguards.
At this empty house with new white tiles, a sofa and two armchairs, Pen Sovann finally
arrives. From a quiet life in rural Takeo, Sovann is now back in the political limelight
of Phnom Penh.
Although he's been out of sight for years, to Khmers he needs little introduction.
A Vietnamese protégé in the 1980s, Sovann's story is a well-known one
of a rapid rise to power, followed by one of the hardest plummets from grace.
The former head of the Cambodian communist party, Sovann displeased his Vietnamese
masters and paid the price - 10 years in detention in Hanoi.
Now, after a quiet four years in Takeo since being allowed to return to Cambodia,
the 62-year-old is pondering a political comeback.
Amid government in-fighting, Funcinpec is wooing - and protecting - the former communist
chief who makes plain his intense dislike for Hun Sen.
If the amount of space devoted to him in the Khmer newspapers in recent weeks is
anything to go by, the name of Pen Sovann has not been forgotten.
"I sincerely serve the development of the country. I am a true nationalist.
I still have ability and knowledge. I have good health. People still love and respect
me," Sovann says, listing the reasons why he believes the time is right for
a return to politics.
Sovann has been fighting for most of his life, and been through most of the battles
of Cambodia's recent history.
He joined the Issarak independence movement when he was 13, and later joined the
Communist Party of Indochina in 1951. He served as a bodyguard and secretary to Ta
Mok, who was to later become one of the most feared commanders of the Khmer Rouge.
"I went my way and Ta Mok went his own way," Sovann says simply of the
pair's split in 1954 after independence was achieved.
Of his former master, he notes that Ta Mok was to become known for being meaner and
more ruthless than Pol Pot. "He does [the bad jobs] himself," he says.
After attending cadre training school in Vietnam, Sovann returned to Cambodia in
1970 and rallied to the anti-Lon Nol resistance. But in 1974 - before the Khmer Rouge
seized power - he quit Cambodia and returned to Vietnam.
"Their revolution was different from any other," he says of the KR. "They
did not allow the Khmer to have culture, religion, money or live with their family.
"At the end of 1977 I came to organize and regroup Cambodians living along the
Lao and Vietnam borders, hoping to strengthen them to topple the genocidal regime,"
Along with Heng Samrin and Hun Sen, Sovann was brought to power by Vietnam after
its late 1978 invasion to evict the Pol Pot regime. He was appointed the Secretary-General
of the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea, and was initially the vice-president
in charge of national defense.
In July 1981 he was made the head of the government, in a reign that lasted only
six months. Arrested in Dec 1981, he spent seven years in a Hanoi jail and another
three under house arrest.
As he tells his story, at times his voice becomes a monotone - seemingly saying what
people expect him to say. But when he speaks of his imprisonment, more than a tinge
of anger emerges.
"Hun Sen and [fellow senior communist party official] Say Phou Thang were responsible
for my imprisonment," he says.
Sovann remembers well his arrest and subsequent jailing in Vietnam. Asked what reason
was given to him for his arrest, he recalls with precision the letter he got when
he asked for an explanation of his imprisonment:
"I received the response from the political bureau of [communist party] at 8am
on Feb 12, 1982. It said: 'You should not ask the People's Revolutionary Party about
anything at all. All of your mistakes you can understand better than anyone else.
Especially, you are narrow-minded, extremely nationalistic and against the Vietnamese.
Based on the above mistakes, the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea cannot
let you return to Cambodia.' This letter was signed for the central committee on
Feb 6 by Say Phou Thong. It had the party stamp."
Sovann doesn't like to talk much about his days of detention in Hanoi, commenting
only that: "I was in a 15 square-meter cell. I was cut off from the outside
world and they only gave me five dollars a month to live."
But he has not overcome his hate for those who he considers betrayed him. He recalls
the time when he asked that Hun Sen be assigned to lead the youth section of the
"I gathered all those people. I taught them their role, how to lead a country.
I taught Hun Sen."
Given his freedom and permitted back to Cambodia in 1992, Sovann is also bitter about
the treatment he has received since then.
Given a house beside a lake in Snor village of Takeo, "I had nothing when I
arrived," he said last month at a Funcinpec-organized press conference.
"People gave me some rice to eat and soap to wash. I raised chickens, pigs and
grew bananas and vegetables for food."
Sovann noted that his name was never mentioned as one of the founders of the Vietnamese-backed
National Salvation Front which liberated Cambodia from Pol Pot, nor as a former president
of the communist party. By being sent to live next to the lake, "I was mocked",
Ironically, he acknowledged that he repeatedly asked to rejoin his former colleagues
in the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), the successor to the People's Revolutionary
Party. Every time he was rejected, until finally in 1994 he was appointed an advisor
to the Takeo CPP branch.
When Sam Rainsy formed the Khmer Nation Party in late 1995, and Sovann's name was
rumored as a possible recruit, he lost that position and said that Hun Sen also threatened
to confiscate his house and car.
But still, he told the press conference, "I kneel and beg to join [the CPP]
by writing once or twice a year to Hun Sen and Chea Sim. Recently, I asked Chea Sim
whether I could serve the CPP."
Now, to take revenge on those who spurned him, Sovann is apparently ready to accept
Funcinpec's help to form his own party. But even Funcinpec, it seems, does not want
him inside their party.
"Funcinpec clearly said: 'I will let you live in my commune, but not in my house.
You can create your own house, your own party'," Sovann says.
He plans to launch his party by the end of May, but says he has to find money and
an office first.
He is convinced he will receive the backing of some of his former friends within
CPP, especially those with "anti-Vietnamese feeling", and claims to have
already received a letter of support from some CPP members.
Of the Hun Sen faithful, however, he knows he will make no new friends. "[They]
will not support me - those who follow Hun Sen's philosophy, which is only self-interest,
nepotism and power."