Angkor Wat lighting critic to return from exile

By: Vong Sokheng

Cultural preservationist Moeung Sonn has lived in self-imposed exile since a 2009 disinformation conviction stemming from his complaints about a light installation at Angkor Wat. Now he is coming home.

King Norodom Sihamoni has signed off on a royal pardon to allow Sonn to return to Cambodia, a decree obtained yesterday has revealed.

“[This decree] grants a pardon to the convict named Moeung Sonn, whom the [Supreme] Court decided to imprison according to a ruling dated April 11, 2012,” it reads, referring to his appeal that year.

“Samdech Akka Moha Sena Padei Techo Hun Sen, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia, must [approve] for a successful implementation, in accordance with the royal decree.”

The pardon was signed by the King on May 8.

The 69-year-old Sonn said from Thailand that he will return to the capital on May 18.

“I have been waiting for six years, and today, I received a pardon letter from the King. I am very excited to go back to my country,” he said. “I am thankful to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who requested to the King to pardon me.”

Sonn said that the pardon arose out of the “culture of dialogue” between opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen. He pointed to the pair’s recent joint meeting in Kuala Lumpur, where Sonn said he met with Hun Sen and Rainsy during their speech to Cambodian migrant workers on April 25.

Sonn fled Cambodia in 2009 after a court sentenced him to two years and levied a 15 million riel (about $3,750) fine for spreading “disinformation” about a proposed Angkor Wat lighting project. He said that workers installing the fixtures drilled into the ancient temple’s walls, a claim the government vehemently denied.

Calling the pardon “long overdue”, political analyst Ou Virak yesterday said Sonn’s case had turned into something of a political powder keg at the time.

“In some strange way, the ruling party was annoyed by him because of the Angkor Wat [issue] as well as the [Thai] border dispute.… They were annoyed because he was trying to gain popularity over the issue.

“Even after the conviction, [the government] stopped the lighting project,” he added.

Ny Chakrya, the head of local rights group Adhoc’s monitoring section, agreed that Sonn’s case had been politicised.

“I think [this] occurred out of political motivation, and it ended through a political resolution dependent on Hun Sen,” he said.

“I think that it was unfair for Sonn, who had simply expressed his concerns to protect the heritage of the nation and the Cambodian people.”

The president of the Khmer Civilization Foundation and former member of the now-defunct Sam Rainsy Party, however, is just happy to be coming home.

“I will be free to live in my country, to see the prosperity of my nation, and I will continue work toward conserving the heritage of my nation and my people,” said Sonn.