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Ex-Prime Minister Pen Sovann Dies Aged 80

Women carry pitchers filled with water from an opening made to filter water in Thane, India.

Pen Sovann was prime minister from 1979 to 1981, when he was arrested and detained in Vietnam for opposing Vietnamese immigration.

Pen Sovann, Cambodia’s first post-Khmer Rouge prime minister, died from a long-standing illness on Saturday at his home in Takeo province. He was 80.

Political observers mourned a man they described as an important politician who opposed Vietnamese influence in Cambodia, but was never a well-known political personality.

Sovann was prime minister from 1979 to 1981, when he was arrested and detained in Vietnam for opposing Vietnamese immigration.

Yem Ponharith, opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party spokesman, said Sovann’s decade-long jailing in Vietnam had led to a deterioration in his health.

However, he had remained on the political stage well into his later years, winning a seat in the 2013 election on a CNRP ticket.

“He was a very important person, a historian and a witness to history. He contributed considerably to the CNRP by offering ideas and opinion to the next generation of youth to be more aware of national issues,” he said.

Sovann had suffered a stroke in 2015 and retired from politics, but continued to suffer high blood pressure and diabetes.

The former prime minister was born on April 15, 1936, in Tramkak district’s Samrong commune. He received military training in Vietnam.

Before being elected in 2013, from 2008 to 2012, he was the chief advisor to the Human Rights Party, then led by current CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha.

So Chantha, a political scientist, said Sovann was a nationalist from the political elite who was opposed to what he saw as excessive Vietnamese immigration to the country following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge.

He added that Sovann was staunchly opposed to nepotism and thought the corruption that has become endemic in Cambodia’s political system was wrong.

Though Cambodia has turned to China of late for support and aid, “it’s hard to conclude that it’s true that Cambodia is turning to China [and away from Vietnam], it may just be political drama.”

Sambo Manara, a historian, said Sovann’s experience fighting against the Khmer Rouge meant that he understood the plight of ordinary Cambodians, adding that he was a “problem solver” who “loved Cambodia.”

Writing on Facebook on Sunday, CNRP president Sam Rainsy said Sovann had spent time in prison because he had opposed the so-called K-5 Plan, also known as the Bamboo Curtain, an attempt to stop Khmer Rouge infiltration into Cambodia from Thailand, which caused thousands of injuries and many deaths from landmines and malaria.

As prime minister, Sovann led the Kampuchea People’s Revolutionary Party, the progenitor of current Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.

Sok Eysan, CPP spokesman, played down Sovann’s anti-Khmer Rouge credentials, saying that if he had remained in power in 1981 there would not have been an end to the civil war.

“We knew that Pen Sovann opposed the K 5-Plan. And what was the K5-Plan? It was a plan to curb the return of Pol Pot and genocide toward Cambodians throughout the country. Thus, when he opposed the K5-Plan, it meant he wanted the return of a genocidal regime,” he said.

The CNRP announced they were entering a seven-day mourning period following Sovann’s death.