Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Son Soubert still serving after 30 years

Son Soubert still serving after 30 years

Son Soubert still serving after 30 years

Son Soubert, retired King Sihanouk's appointee at the Constitutional Council, was

born in 1942 and educated in Paris at the Sorbonne. He studied art and architecture

and did extensive research in the south of India, specialising in Southeast Asian

history. His family background helps explain his current career. His father, Son

Sann, was "as the Khmer Rouge pointed out, seven times a Minister and Prime

Minister." But when Soubert's brother was killed in a car accident, his father

saw this as a warning and resigned all his official duties in 1968. "The Prince

was not happy," Soubert said, smiling, referring to then Prince Norodom Sihanouk.

His father remained active in politics, and the young Soubert recalls being "indirectly

involved in all the negotiations - I served the food and drink at the dinner parties

my father would host." When the Khmer Rouge took Phnom Penh in 1975, his family

gathered in Paris where they created the General Association of Cambodians Abroad.

The association attempted to rally support against the Khmer Rouge, but was warned

by the French government not to engage in political activities. In lieu of political

activism, the association turned its attention to preserving Cambodian culture and

toured France with a classical dance troop to raise money to send to the "freedom

fighters on the border," he said. Soubert spoke to the Post's Cat Barton and

Vong Sokheng about his James Bond-style escape from France, elections, and education.

When did you first become actively involved in politics?

In October 1979, my younger brother and my mother clandestinely flew - James Bond

style - out of France. We had to divert the attention of the French authorities,

so we flew to London and then to Thailand. At the time France didn't allow Cambodian

citizens to go to Thailand. In Thailand we were received by the Thai military and

that's it - we started our movement like this. I was sent to the border. There I

saw big problems, starvation, and many refugees didn't want to be there as the Thais

mistreated them so we gave them rice and got some

bicycles and tried to help them go back to Cambodia.

How did you help them?

There were three camps, one of them in the Cardamom Mountains. This site was inhuman,

with so much malaria, and with Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge in the mountains. We had

to convey food and medicine 20 kilometres down the mountain to help the refugees.

Some died on the road of weakness, starvation and malaria. Military leaders told

us that sometimes more than 1,000 people died at once and they had to burn the whole

village. I would have to trek into the jungle for 20 kilometres knee deep in water,

climbing up the mountain and then coming down. Our first priority was to feed the

people and give them medicine. Later we started the real military movement in the

country. We had a very hard time when we started - no one understood what we were

doing. I asked for educational material and ... I was so mad. Unicef would not help

us to educate the children who were stranded on the border.

Was UNTAC - the United Nation Transitional Authority on Cambodia in the early 1990s

a success?

I worked on the committee for repatriation for the Khmer Peoples National Liberation

Front (KPNLF) faction. The UNTAC elections were maybe a success, but they did not

fulfill all their promises. All repatriation should have happened. Over 10,000 Cambodians

had not come back. I complained especially about the Site II camp, but they (UNTAC)

said it was not important. For political reasons, the CPP, the State of Cambodia,

had not agreed to have the refugees in Mondolkiri or Ratanakkiri, just Siem Reap

or Battambang under the pretense that there was no land. It was political. They didn't

want to change the demographics of the area.

Are elections better organised now?

It is a regression now from UNTAC. Then you could go anywhere to vote. I was born

in Phnom Penh, I registered in Siem Reap, and I voted in Battambang. Now you have

to be in the right place. It is a kind of control.

What do you think about the outcry over the National Election Commission's new

voter lists?

Recently, the NEC said they have revised voter lists and removed ghost voters. But

even during the Paris Peace Accords we raised the issue of illegal immigrants living

in Cambodia. UNTAC was supposed to check but at registration UNTAC didn't know who

was Khmer or Vietnamese. Even now people still complain to the Constitutional Council

about the Vietnamese who register as voters.

What do you think is the biggest problem in contemporary Cambodia is?

The biggest problem is education, everything is fake, everyone can get a diploma,

even our members of Parliament get fake degrees. The most dangerous are the medical

ones - they pay a bribe and they are qualified. It jeopardizes their own future,

foreign companies will not trust Cambodian qualifications. All this cheating in exams

is not good. It will create a society of fake people. I send the orphans I work with

to Thailand or anywhere where they can have a real education.

What can be done about this?

I teach for free at the University of Archaeology. I am very severe. I warn my students

that if I catch them cheating I won't mark their essays. I said this and they threaten

to send their parents to see me. I said let them come. But the parents don't come.

What is your role at the Constitutional Council?

I joined in 1998. At the start there were three people appointed by the King - my

father was one of them but then he stopped attending. If you don't attend you are

dismissed. To solve the problem my father agreed for me to come in his place. The

King agreed to that. My father retired and went to live in France. He died in 2000.

Does the Constitutional Council function well?

The Constitutional Council is tied up and bound. We cannot act on our own initiative,

only when we receive a complaint. Even if a law is unconstitutional we cannot act.

The Consitutional Council doesn't work. But I'm happy as I can do other things -

teaching, taking care of the orphans, educating children.

Do you think there could be change by the ballot box in Cambodia?

That is wishful thinking. The whole organisation is set up in a way which means there

are no chances for change. On the border we trained people for a democratic system,

but here it is a fake democracy. I support the Human Rights Party and I try to get

the Sam Rainsy Party to see that they can combine, but Sam Rainsy thinks he can go

it alone. What about this new one-term limit his party have just introduced? It is

a ridiculous political manoeuvre. What can a Prime Minister do in one term? Nothing,

it must be two terms, if you want to change you can't do anything in five years -

it is just a bargaining chip with Kem Sokha as he wanted a two-terms limit. As long

as the military are involved, not defending the territory and borders, they do land

grabbing and do business. And dirty business - some are involved in drug trafficking.

There is no hope, and Mr. Hun Sen is responsible.


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