PHNOM PENH —
A block away from the street where the late Cambodian People’s Party leader Sok An’s body was carried to a cremation ceremony at Wat Botum on Sunday morning, Pros Chan Samnang, 23, a coffee seller, remembers the first time she met the deputy prime minister as a high school student.
“He said we had to study hard, to not use drugs and destroy your future. We tried to study to become the country’s bamboo,” she said.
“He was friendly... I saw him appearing on television on the boxing channel when there was a big fight,” she added.
Sok An, known as the “minister of many arms,” was a close ally of Prime Minister Hun Sen since the 1980s and served for almost four decades in post-Khmer Rouge governments.
He died in a hospital in Beijing at 6:32 pm on Wednesday, according to the CPP sources. He was 66.
“I felt I just met him and when he died, I couldn’t believe that,” Samnang said.
Another coffee seller, Kong Nanthip, 21, remembers An giving her pens and schoolbooks. As head of the scouts in Cambodia, An visited many schools during his career.
“When I was a student, he came to my school often. I knew he was president of the scouts... I didn’t know anything else about him ... not even that he was a lawmaker.”
Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, center, stands next to a 10th century Cambodian sandstone statue as the Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art William M. Griswold, right, holds a garland during a ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Unlike the former head of the CPP, Chea Sim, who was cremated in June 2015, few people turned out to watch An’s procession on Sunday.
Among the attendees was Prime Minister Hun Sen and Senate President Say Chhum, who delivered the eulogy, and National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
Chhum lauded An’s achievements, including his role in preserving the Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear temples by “overcoming every obstacle for national salvation, building peace, national reconciliation, defending, rehabilitation and development of Cambodian motherland.”
Hun Sen wrote on Facebook on the day of An’s death that his passing was a “huge loss” for the CPP.
Sok An was one of 10 deputy prime ministers, the minister for Hun Sen’s cabinet, the Council of Ministers, and had led numerous government committees, agencies and commissions since 2004.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, attended the cremation ceremony of Sok An, known as the “minister of many arms,” at Phnom Penh Wat Botum, March 19, 2017. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
A former teacher, An’s close relationship with Hun Sen was cemented with the wedding of his eldest son and Hun Sen’s second daughter, Hun Maly.
Chhean Veasna, 39, a grocer with a shop near the cremation site, said she was aware of the criticism An had received.
“It’s normal that as a leader, there are right and wrong kinds of leadership. Some people say he was corrupt since he held many positions,” she said. “People see the leaders are rich and then say they are corrupt.”
“I also pitied him because he was only 66 and died early.”
Phay Siphan, government spokesman, said in response to questions about the corruption allegations against An that he was “the right person” for the jobs and had “a lot of experience”.
He added that Bin Chhin, another deputy prime minister and the head of the body charged with resolving land disputes, would temporarily assume An’s duties.
Sok An has come under fire for alleged nepotism as his sons have received promotions and lucrative positions in the foreign ministry, Apsara Authority, the Cambodia Rice Federation and parliament.
The CPP has defended the family, saying An’s sons had the experience and skills needed to fill the roles.
In this March 31, 2011, file photo, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An walks at Phnom Penh International Airport in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Sok Eysan, the CPP spokesman said that CPP said that the party had lost a valuable leader.
“The CPP is strong and unified; the storm cannot make the party shaky,” he said.
An’s death came at a tense time for the CPP and Cambodia, with commune elections scheduled for June and general elections drawing close. Hun Sen, who has held power for more than three decades, has been criticized for attempting to silence all dissent ahead of the polls.
“There are some negative points [of An’s leadership], but we don’t know clearly. So we don’t know what to say,” said Samnang. She hopes that there will be a “good official” to replace him.