Hun Sen loses his right-hand man

The death of deputy premier Sok An leaves a substantial void in the Cambodian People's Party-led government with crucial elections on the horizon

Phnom Penh, March 16, 2017 5:24 PM (UTC+8)
Sok An (left), Hun Sen's top deputy in his long ruling Cambodian People's Party-led government, died of ill-health on Wednesday. Reuters / Samrang Pring
Sok An (left), Hun Sen's top deputy in his long ruling Cambodian People's Party-led government, died of ill-health on Wednesday. Reuters / Samrang Pring

Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok An died on Wednesday in a Beijing hospital after being absent from public life for several months due to ill-health. His death will leave a void in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, one that analysts speculate Prime Minister Hun Sen will struggle to fill.

Sok An, 66, was one of several deputy prime ministers and also served as head of the Council of Ministers, a role specifically created for the senior politician. He was often described by commentators as Hun Sen’s “right-hand man.”

On Monday, he was granted the title of “samdech”, which translates to “the greatest” or “lord”, an honorific bestowed upon only seven other non-royals by King Norodom Sihamoni. The government has reportedly set aside almost US$750,000 for elaborate funeral ceremonies.

Sok An’s control of numerous state bodies was rivaled only by Hun Sen’s decades-long grip on power. However, he was seldom viewed as a potential challenger to Hun Sen inside the CPP, even during periods when Hun Sen wobbled or faced fierce international criticism.

He was “a preeminent Hun Sen loyalist, prepared to repeat any charge, justify any rights abuse, facilitate any deal,” according to Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, a rights lobby.

This photo taken on August 7, 2014 shows Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sok Ann (C) speaks to the media during a press conference following the verdict in the trial of two former Khmer Rouge leaders at the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) in Phnom Penh. Sok Ann died in a Beijing hospital on March 15, 2017, According to government official. / AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN SOTHY
Man in the middle: Deputy premier Sok An in a 2014 file photo. AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Sok An’s ties to Hun Sen date back to 1982, when he became chief of cabinet at the foreign ministry. The portfolio was then headed by Hun Sen, who went on to become premier three years later, a position he has held ever since.

A savvy negotiator, Sok An was a prominent diplomat tasked with representing the government during the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991. He also led the protracted talks with the United Nations over the Khmer Rouge tribunal, ensuring it was formulated in line with the Cambodian government’s wishes, which included limitations on who could be brought to trial.

More recently, Sok An’s ties to international organizations proved invaluable to the CPP-led government. In 2014, he was appointed vice-chairman of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP), a regional forum intended to boost political cooperation. He had been a member of the standing committee since its formation in 2010. In 2013, he was also named senior vice president of the Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International (CAPDI), a similar organization.

After the 2013 general election, which the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) claimed was riddled by fraud and irregularities, the ICAPP and CAPDI both praised the election as “free, fair and transparent”, calling it a “triumph of popular will and a victory of the Cambodian people in their quest to build a better future based on the supremacy and sanctity of the ballot.”

With the deceased Sok An no longer a member of those organizations, the CPP-led government will no doubt lose much of the legitimacy they provide, especially as Cambodia prepares for a commune election in June and a general election next year amid ramped up repression of the CNRP and civil society groups.

Domestically, Sok An was described by his opponents as running the government “like a Hindu god of 48 arms.” During the early 2000s, the CPP-dominated Council of Ministers drew numerous committees and commissions into its orbit, many overseen personally by Sok An.

A statue is seen on a stone bridge leading to Angkor Thom, which is part of the Angkor complex that includes the famous temple Angkor Wat, in Siem Reap province, November 22, 2014. Picture taken November 22, 2014. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini (CAMBODIA - Tags: SOCIETY RELIGION TRAVEL) - RTR4GOQV
Sok An oversaw state management of the Angkor ruins. Reuters / Stefano Rellandini 

In particular, Sok An was chairman of the state-controlled Cambodian National Petroleum Authority and the Apsara Authority, which controls the money-spinning Angkor archaeological park. He was also chief of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the Royal Academy as well as the State Investment Board of Rubber Enterprise.

“He seems to control every sector of the government. Any investment, any decision…has to be agreed upon by Sok An,” opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay said in 2004

That power waned slightly over time. After the 2013 election, a number of the state bodies he controlled were abolished, a result of government streamlining and Hun Sen’s efforts to implement internal reforms following a near-loss at the election.

That same year, the prime minister personally overruled Sok An’s decision to grant a prominent businessman more than 350 hectares of contested land in Preah Sihanouk province.

In Cambodia’s familial politics, Sok An’s web of connections was wide-reaching. His wife, Annie Sok An, is the vice president of the Cambodian Red Cross. The president is Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) and his wife Bun Rany arrive at the Royal Palace during commemorations for the second anniversary of late king Norodom Sihanouk's death, in Phnom Penh October 15, 2014. Norodom Sihanouk died on October 15, 2012 in Beijing at the age of 89. REUTERS/Samrang Pring (CAMBODIA - Tags: POLITICS ROYALS ANNIVERSARY) - RTR4A7SA
Family Affair: Hun Sen and Sok An’s families intermarried. Reuters/Samrang Pring 

Moreover, Hun Sen’s youngest daughter, Hun Mali, is married to Sok An’s son, Sok Puthyvuth, one of Cambodia’s most prominent businessmen. Another of his sons, Sok Soken, became undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs last year. He is married to the daughter of industry minister Cham Prasidh.

Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University, published an essay last month which claimed that Hun Sen now runs a “personalist dictatorship” whereby he has surpassed the power of fellow CPP leaders by assuming control of most arms of state.

During his three-decade rule, Morgenbesser posited, Hun Sen has successfully purged the CPP of opposition factions, including those loyal to Chea Sim, party president from 1991 until his death in 2015, and Heng Samrin, current president of the National Assembly.

The death of Sok An may provide Hun Sen an opportunity to further consolidate his power, some commentators speculate. The relatively unknown Bun Ay has already been named to replace Sok An as acting minister for the Council of Ministers, according to media reports.

On the other hand, without his politically adroit loyalist Sok An, Hun Sen will have to ensure that a new equilibrium is achieved within the CPP. This will require the bodies and committees controlled Sok An are assumed by loyalists to his heavy-handed rule.

With only three months until crucial commune elections, and as the government intensifies its harassment and intimidation of the CNRP, Hun Sen will have to employ all of his political cunning and canniness to keep the CPP unified with the loss of Sok An’s balancing influence.

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