Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Tribute to a remarkable Cambodian couple

Tribute to a remarkable Cambodian couple

Tribute to a remarkable Cambodian couple


When Pung Peng Cheng died November 10, his family held, as wished, a small and intimate

ceremony in his home, in stark contrast to his wife's large and formal ceremony only

five months earlier. He had been minister of the government three times prior to

1970, the Secretary General of the Council of the Throne, Sihanouk's director of

cabinet in exile, a minister in Hun Sen's government, the King's nominee on the Constitutional

Council and High Advisor to the King. Tong Siv Eng was Cambodia's first woman politician

and minister, and an advocate for women's and children's rights, and human rights.

Pung Peng Cheng and Tong Siv Eng back home in Cambodia.

The following tribute is by Sue Downie, who lived in Cambodia 1989-96 and

knew the couple since they returned from overseas in 1989.

Prey Veng, April 17, 1989:

A dirt road between two forgettable villages.

I was squeezed into a four-wheel drive in a dusty convoy following a similar vehicle

carrying the Prime Minister to a comparatively remote part of southeast Cambodia.

The previous day I had subjected Hun Sen to a four- hour interview, and had then

been invited to join him on this visit-the-rural-people trip.

Accompanying him was an elderly Cambodian couple who had returned from France. I

was a brash, naive freelance journalist lost in the labyrinth of Cambodian politics,

so it was some time before I realized that my squeezed-in neighbors were former top

Sihanoukists Pung Peng Cheng and his wife, Siv Eng.

Back in Phnom Penh a couple of nights later I was invited to dine with them. In the

spacious upstairs reception room of one of Phnom Penh's more delightful old guesthouses,

a petite gray-haired Siv Eng sat on the edge of her chair, almost engulfed by the

room's expansive furniture and copious drapes.

Her gold watch and diamond-studded spectacles contrasted with the sarong and sandals.

She talked of sexual equality and political reforms, of war and peace, deprivation

and restoration. She spoke quietly but sometimes with wrenching emotion, her tiny

hands waving expressively in the air.

Until 1931 girls in Cambodia were not allowed to attend high school. Siv Eng's father

circumvented that by sending her to high school in Saigon where she spent seven years

with two other girls, Tea Samnom and In Em (Sam Rainsy's mother). They were the first

Cambodian girls to study abroad and the first to complete high school. ("She

really was a woman's fighter from the beginning," added Peng Cheng). Significantly,

36 years later, their eldest daughter, Kek [Galabru], was the first Cambodian girl

to graduate from medical school in France.

In 1958, school teacher Siv Eng passed up an opportunity to become a school supervisor

and instead became Cambodia's first woman politician, and two years later the country's

first minister and acting Chair of the National Assembly.

In her third term she took on the dual portfolios of Social Welfare and Health. "Very

seldom was someone minister for two areas. In my third term there was one other woman

minister - for Education - and she was my former student, Diep Dina."

Over the next 35 years, Siv Eng paved the way for women to hold equal status to men

in many areas. She literally took women out of the kitchen and put them in the office.

"But I had to struggle," she said. "Men thought women should stay

at home and do house- work. And I changed their minds. I said, there are men and

women in our boat and if the women are just there singing, the boat cannot go fast,

but if the women help the men row the boat, it will go faster."

Now, in the exquisite old guesthouse, this diminutive dynamo was talking of helping

to bring peace to Cambodia. After almost 20 years in exile - living mostly in France

and China - she was back, although at age 72 she admitted she lacked the strength

of her former campaigning days: "I will not go back to politics because it is

too much work and I am not very well, health wise."

But the commitment and the passion were strong.

"I will work very hard for the women and for peace. When we have peace we will

be better off economically. Oh, but there are so many widows and orphans; we must

do something to help them."

Over the following months, most times when I visited Siv Eng, I would find this tiny

grandmother (she came up to my shoulder, and I'm short!) at the dining room table

trimming photos of Cambodian orphans and matching them with rich sponsors in France.

Other times she was surrounded by translations and recently-published booklets on

human rights, ready to be distributed in Cambodia. I didn't realize it at the time,

but this was the beginning of Kek's human rights group that adopted the French acronym


While I developed great admiration for and a fond affinity with Siv Eng, it was Pung

Peng Cheng with whom I spent most of my time during visits to their reclaimed home,

which by the way, was on the edge of what we used to call 'the forbidden city' as

the top PRK/CPP officials lived there behind high walls, barbed fences, and boom

gates guarded by armed soldiers.

The 73-year-old Peng Cheng and I embarked on a project to write a book about his

life with Sihanouk, so throughout 1990 I spent most afternoons typing on my laptop

while he recalled details of meetings, banquets, delegations and Sihanouk's daily

analysis of media reports, in Beijing, Pyongyang, Paris, other parts of France, and


Peng Cheng had been a behind-the-scenes influence in Cambodian politics since the

mid-1950s when he became Director General of Education. In 1965 he was appointed

Secretary General of the Royal High Council of the Throne in the Palace.

"We were very close to the Royal family - we could go and see Sihanouk and the

Queen [Sihanouk's mother] any time."

The couple had a double palace connection, as, from 1956, Siv Eng privately tutored

all of Sihanouk's children except Prince Ranariddh.

After Sihanouk was ousted in the 1970 coup, he moved between the Chinese, North Korean

and French capitals, so Peng Cheng and his wife followed, spending much of the next

12 years shuttling between Beijing, Pyongyang and Paris.

"I was director of Sihanouk's cabinet [until 1975] and when Sihanouk came back

to Cambodia in September 1975 [as the Khmer Rouge's Head of State], I went to France

with all the members of the cabinet.

"When Sihanouk escaped [from the Khmer Rouge] in [January]1979 he returned to

Peking. The other cabinet members stayed in Paris but my wife and I followed him

to Peking. I was Sihanouk's private advisor and we lived with him, in the same compound.

When he went to Kuala Lumpur in 1982 to form the coalition [the CGDK, with the KR

and the KPNLF], I returned to France.''

In Paris, Peng Cheng worked for UNESCO for a few years, then went into semi-retirement,

although he and his wife longed to return to Phnom Penh. Their opportunity came through

a chance meeting between the then Foreign Minister Hun Sen and their daughter Kek,

in Angola in 1983.

"Her husband was the French Ambassador in Angola, and when Hun Sen visited,

the [Angolan] Foreign Minister called up and said: 'There is someone here from Cambodia.

Do you want to meet him - as a Cambodian, not on an official level?' Prince Sihanouk

liked my family. My daughter saw in Hun Sen someone that can negotiate peace with

the Prince, so she and her husband became a contact between the two of them."

With the aim of bringing Sihanouk and Hun Sen together, in September 1987, Peng Cheng

urged Kek to write to the Prince. As a result, Kek and her husband Jean-Jacques were

invited to a lunch that lasted six hours with Sihanouk, after which he agreed to

meet Hun Sen.

The dinner in Angola, the six-hour lunch plus other international diplomatic maneuverings,

led to three highly-publicized meetings in France between Sihanouk and Hun Sen, the

first in December 1987, and ultimately to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement. "After

the third meeting, my daughter said you must meet Hun Sen. So we met him in Paris,

and he asked: 'When do you want to come back and live in Cambodia?'" Hun Sen

was a teenager when Peng Cheng left the country in 1970 but knew him as a senior

official, and even as Prime Minister addressed him respectfully as 'uncle'.

Peng Cheng and his wife visited Cambodia in March, 1989 and almost immediately decided

to return permanently. Although he had been one of Sihanouk's closest aides, and

was director of the cabinet in exile, now he was Minister Assisting the Prime Minister.

This, he said, was a way of bridging the gap between the two leaders, and helping

bring peace to Cambodia.

In a equally expedient political move, Hun Sen appointed Siv Eng to the eight-member

Council of State - the only woman, of course. In addition, they both served on the

PRK's Constitution Commission where they were partly responsible for the return to

the name Cambodia (replacing Kampuchea), for the new flag (to include blue, representing

democracy) and the new anthem.

When I asked Siv Eng in 1989 why they had returned, she replied philosophically,

"I am like the salmon - they are born here, grow up and go away, then come back

to die."

Added Peng Cheng, "I came back for nostalgic reasons - after 20 years abroad

I wanted to see what my homeland was like. Then after I saw the leaders and some

very interesting things, and the city growing, I wanted to stay and help them. One

day Hun Sen asked me to participate on the committee to revise the constitution.

I said: 'We are not communists.' He said: 'Never mind.' Yes, it is true, I am a minister

in a communist government, but working with the communists I can do something for

democracy. I can give them more liberal thoughts. For example, on the Constitution

Commission we changed the name [of the country] and the flag, and - two things very

important for me - we repealed the death penalty, and what is very important for

human rights, abolished the rule that [Cambodian] people could be exiled [deported]."

Siv Eng was also proud of influencing the Constitution Commission to outlaw polygamy

which she said denigrated women.

Sihanouk returned from exile under UN protection in November 1991, and in 1993

the King re-instated Peng Cheng by nominating his long-term aide as his representative

on the Constitutional Council and as one of his high advisors.

On a personal note, it was Peng Cheng who took me on trips to the countryside when

it was forbidden for foreign journalists to leave Phnom Penh without permission,

and it was he who arranged for me to live in a house in suburban Phnom Penh at a

time when foreigners were restricted to living in the city's three main hotels. It

was Peng Cheng who took me around Phnom Penh - sometimes driving himself - and introduced

me to the city.

Before Sihanouk's return, he got permission for us to visit the Royal Palace, and

we spent a memorable afternoon wandering through the whole complex of temples and

palaces including all the rooms of Khemarin Palace which had not been lived in since

1979, and the gardens, which were overgrown. He showed me where he used to sit on

the floor of the Queen's bedroom each afternoon tending to her correspondence, and

the gigantic bed made especially for de Gaulle's visit.

Although I left Cambodia in 1996, I returned frequently, and always visited Peng

Cheng and Siv Eng, usually taking tubular roses and a bag of cashew nuts (two of

her favorites). The last meal we had together was a New Year's dinner at Kek's house,

and I was honored to be the only non-family member present. Only four people call

me Susy: my nephew, a childhood friend and my 'Cambodian grandparents'.

They were a great couple, and their passing is undeniably a loss to Cambodia,

but they have both left many significant legacies, especially for women, for democracy

and for human rights.


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