Born in Takeo in 1936, Pen Sovann dropped out of school at 15 and joined a local
anti-French movement led by Ek Choeun, later infamous as Ta Mok. After the Indochina
War in 1954, he was one of some 1,000 Cambodians "regrouped" to Vietnam
for military training. He joined the Khmer Rouge in 1970, and was in charge of information
until 1974. Claiming that "Pol Pot and Ieng Sary wanted to kill me," he
fled back to Vietnam and was instrumental in forming the United Front for the National
Salvation of Cambodia in 1978. After the Vietnamese-backed overthrow of the Khmer
Rouge in 1979, he became the Front's secretary-general, and Prime Minister in 1981.
Later that year, just days after criticizing the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia,
his home was surrounded by "900 troops and 12 tanks," and he was handcuffed,
covered with a black mask, and rushed to Hanoi were he would spend the next 10 years
in prison and home arrest.
Former Cambodian Prime Minister Pen Sovann sits before a photo taken of him shortly after his release from prison in Vietnam where he was held for 10 years and 52 days. "I asked for assistance, not an invasion," said Sovann of Vietnam's liberation" of Cambodia.
Today, he sits in a wooden gazebo over a fish pond behind his home in Takeo town.
Tacked to the wooden walls are sepia-tinted photographs of Sovann alongside CPP stalwarts
Hun Sen, Chea Sim, Say Phou Thong. In one he's standing in the back of a Soviet jeep
reviewing troops in front of the Royal Palace in 1980. In another he's sharing a
light moment with retired King Norodom Sihanouk. It's a comfortable home, but modest
for a former head of state who has visited the White House, the Pentagon and the
Kremlin. Besides the occasional foreign reporter or diplomat (former US Ambassador
Charles Ray once lunched here), his days are undisturbed. He's the president of the
National Sustaining Party of Cambodia, but the party sign in front of his home is
adorned with rust and peeling paint. The government has been labeling him mentally
ill for years.
Sovann once told the Post: "Cambodian politics has the head of a chicken and
the ass of a duck. They speak about democracy and multiple political parties, but
they practice communist ways."
He spoke to Charles McDermid on February 17 about Ta Mok, Hun Sen and the CPP's lingering
links to communism.
Why do so many people have the opinion that you're crazy?
This comes from Hun Sen. In 1993 he made a statement to the people saying I had mental
problems. The people asked: "Where is Pen Sovann now?" And Hun Sen said
he's still alive, but he's stupid now and when he talks he foams at the mouth. This
isn't true. A person should be judged by how they act.
What was it like to work with "The Butcher" Ta Mok?
I met Ta Mok in August, 1949. Later, I became his bodyguard and adviser. At the time
he was teaching people about resistance tactics. He was a good help to many people.
At that time he was a good person with a good character. He started to change around
How did you react when you learned Ta Mok died last year?
I had two feelings. First I felt very sorry to lose the person who taught me about
fighting injustice from 1949 to 1954. I also thought it was fair enough for him to
die. Ten of my relatives, including my siblings, died because of Ta Mok. I started
hating him in 1972: at that time he changed from a rabbit to a bear.
What was your relationship with Pol Pot?
I met him many times: the first was on March 12, 1950 and the last time was March
18, 1970. At first we talked about the movement against the French. He had a good
background and he had a good character at the time. Like Ta Mok he started to change
around 1968 when he became influenced too much by China and became a Maoist.
Why did you leave the Khmer Rouge in 1974?
It was caused by different views on policy. They had started to trample on the people
and were following Mao. There was no justice. I went to Vietnam as a refugee. At
the time Vietnam didn't want me to stay. They thought I was a spy for the Khmer Rouge.
I tried to explain that the Khmer Rouge were killing Cambodian people and that one
day Pol Pot will try to invade Vietnam. At the time they didn't believe me. It wasn't
until 1977 that Vietnam believed me. They asked me to select people in border areas
who were unhappy with the Khmer Rouge to come to be trained in Hanoi. Among these
people were Chea Sim, Hun Sen and Say Phou Thang and others who are now running the
What was your first impression of Hun Sen?
First, he is a very proud man. He has always had one characteristic: he knows that
Vietnam believes in him. I appointed him to be a member of the Front. I knew that
the leaders in Vietnam thought Hun Sen was young and clever, but he had no experience
and spoke no other languages. In October 1978, when I saw that they wanted to promote
Hun Sen I went to them and asked them not to promote him. I asked that they not let
Hun Sen be so proud. He was only in his 20s at the time.
Do you regret asking Vietnam to come into Cambodia to fight the Khmer Rouge?
I have no regret. I was the one who asked them to help, and they helped a lot of
people. But I asked for assistance, not an invasion.
To what extent does Vietnam continue to have an influence in Cambodia government?
You must understand, Vietnam does not want to make Cambodia better. They want Cambodia's
economy to collapse. There is Vietnamese influence from top officials to basic officials
and the police. The people don't like this, they have never liked the Vietnamese
Are you a communist?
I am not a member of any Communist Party. Communism itself is not bad, but its implementation
has been bad. Communism states clearly to respect human rights, the poor and the
benefit of the nation. I stopped believing in communism in March 1981 because communist
regimes have slow economic growth, and under the powerful people in the party, citizens
don't have freedom.
Why were you removed as prime minister?
The party leaders in Hanoi were trying to control everything in Cambodia: the military,
immigration and the economy. First, they accused me of building a free-market economy
that was against communist practice. Second, they accused me of being a "narrow-minded
nationalist" for speaking out against Vietnamese immigration. Third, that I
was disobedient for not respecting orders from Hanoi. There were other things, too.
I was against the K5 program [a strategic military belt along the Thai border] and
I had started an airport tax. The charges weren't real. They were designed to arrest
me, and the leaders of the Front agreed.
After you, the next Prime Minister was Chan Si. In Margaret Slocumb's book The
People's Republic of Kampuchea 1979-1989 [pp 143-144], she wrote that you believed
Chan Si was killed by Hun Sen at a banquet in Phnom Penh in 1987. How did Chan Si
I could not give any comments about how the former Prime Minister Chan Si died because
I could get in trouble if I speak. This [story] has a lot of secrets.
In October 1991, the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea (PRPK) officially
abandoned Marxism-Leninism and changed its name to the CPP. Since that time, has
the CPP acted in a democratic fashion or a communistic fashion?
Until now the ruling party was communist. Now they speak of democracy, but it's just
talk. It's communist inside. I have seen that the CPP's hierarchy and policies are
formed in the communist fashion. They talk about democracy just because it sounds
good. In reality what they implement is not the same as what they say. Cambodian
people have never had real democracy. The country is controlled by powerful people,
and the poor people are their slaves.
In your career in politics, what are you most proud of?
That no one could ever buy me.
Are you a patriot?
I don't want to be judged by words from my lips, but rather from my actions in the