With the passing of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An on Wednesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen has lost one of his closest right hand men, someone who has been by his side for more than three decades since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1980.
There has been an outpouring of grief after the death of Mr. Sok An, who was awarded the title “Samdech Vibol Panha” by King Norodom Sihamoni two days before he died in a hospital in Beijing at the age of 66.
He was a man highly respected by his superior, his colleagues and his many friends in diplomatic circles.
His body was flown back to Cambodia from Beijing early yesterday morning and funeral rites are being held at his residence in Phnom Penh until Sunday, according to the official schedule. His body will be cremated on Sunday morning at Botum Park.
Mr. Hun Sen has appointed permanent Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin to be acting minister in charge of the Council of Ministers and to take over the many tasks in government that Mr. Sok An had been doing.
During Mr. Sok An’s more than 30 years in politics, he played a large number of key roles involving not only politics, but also in preserving Cambodian culture and the country’s educational heritage on top of being an accomplished diplomat.
He joined Prime Minister Hun Sen in negotiating the Paris Peace Agreement in 1991, which resulted in the country holding its first election in 1993. He also joined the prime minister in initiating what became known as the “win, win policy” that would end the fighting with the Khmer Rouge in 1998 and stop the civil war.
He was instrumental in heading talks with the United Nations about forming the hybrid court known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, which was established in 2006 to try the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime.
Like most Cambodians, Mr. Sok An was also very proud of his country’s culture, its heritage and long history. He devoted a lot of time to negotiating to get the historic Preah Vihear temple listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in July 2008.
The list of his achievements for the nation and the people of Cambodia is a long one.
“Samdech Vibol Panha Sok An joined the struggle to serve the nation for many years and helped make Cambodia prosperous until today.
“This is a loss of an important human resource of Cambodia that we will all remember forever,” Mr. Hun Sen wrote on his Facebook page.
The US Embassy in Phnom Penh also issued a statement of condolence over the death of Mr. Sok An.
“Samdech Dr. Sok An had an extraordinary career in the economic, legal, education, religious, cultural preservation and diplomatic fields. He was a longtime partner with the US Embassy on cultural preservation through his role as President of the Apsara Authority,” read the statement.
“He likewise made significant contributions to the Royal Government’s efforts to establish the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia [ECCC] through his role as chairman of the Task Force on the Khmer Rouge Trial.”
Mr. Sok An was also a dedicated family man. Born in Takeo province’s Kirivong district in 1950, he was happily married to his wife Ay Any, who is deputy president of the Cambodian Red Cross with her in-law, Bun Rany Hun Sen, who is the president.
Mr. Sok An and Ms. Ay Any have five children, a daughter Sok Soma and four sons. Their son Sok Puthyvuth is married to the daughter of Mr. Hun Sen and Ms. Bun Rany. Another son, Sok Sokan, is a lawmaker for the ruling CPP in Takeo province, while Sok Soken is the head of foreign affairs and international cooperation for the Union of Youth Federation of Cambodia and Sok Sangva is deputy director general of the Apsara Authority, which oversees Angkok Wat and the surrounding temples.
During his time in power, Mr. Sok An held many positions within the government since starting work in 1981, when he was a secretary-general in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the personal chief of the cabinet of Mr. Hun Sen, who was a minister at that time.
In 1985 he was appointed as Cambodia’s ambassador to India, a country with whom he enjoyed close ties till his passing. Then in 1988 he was appointed as vice-minister of Foreign Affairs. In 1991 he was the secretary general of the Supreme National Council of the CPP and was also Vice-Minister of the Interior.
From 1992 to 1998 he was co-minister of the Office of the Council of Ministers.
From 1998 to 2004 he was promoted to be the senior minister in charge of the Office of the Council of Ministers and from 2004 he was a Deputy Prime Minister.
This was also a period during which he worked tirelessly in secret negotiations with the FUNCINPEC party to forge two coalition governments, in 2003 and again in 2008. His calm manner in reporting to Mr. Hun Sen and his negotiation skills played a key role in forming the two governments.
From 1993 until he died he was also the lawmaker for Takeo province where he spent a lot of his free time with the people there.
Many people who knew Mr. Sok An and dealt with him over the years were impressed by his dedication to the many jobs he had.
Some recall going to see him at his house to discuss delicate issues or to try to solve some of the problems the country faced.
There was often a line of people waiting for him at his house here in Phnom Penh or at his farm house at Tonle Bati. He always made sure that he had time to listen to each of them till late night, many a times.
“He would be in his folded up pants after his routine of inspecting his fragrant coconut palms, honey jackfruit trees, his poultry or his orchids at his orchard at Tonle Bati” one close friend who asked not to be named recalled yesterday.
“Such was the nature of the man. He was humble but commanding at the same time.”
For the many who knew him, he will be sorely missed.