Son Ngoc Minh was the first communist leader of Cambodia, although few in Cambodia would know his name now. Also known as Achar Mean (អាចារ្យមាន), in 1950 he was appointed President of the United Issarek Front, a left-wing coalition that at its height controlled almost half of Cambodia. This can be seen as the first non-feudal, non-colonial state to have existed in Cambodia.
Left-wing politics in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge
When we think of the left in Cambodia, the obvious first thought is the tyrannical rule of the Khmer Rouge. This despite the fact they led the country for less than 4 years, as opposed to the 10 year of the communist Peoples Republic of Kampuchea.
It also squarely ignores the left-wing insurgents that not only fought against the Japanese, but were instrumental in gaining the country independence from French colonial rule. One of they key figures throughout this fight was Son Ngoc Minh.
Biography of Son Ngoc Minh
Born in 1920 to a Khmer father and a Vietnamese mother he initially, and much like Tou Samouth became a Buddhist preacher.
To read about Tou Samouth click here.
He was eventually recruited by the Vietnamese communists and was to serve as President of a newly formed Cambodian People’s Liberation Committee (CPLC) in Battambang.
His nom de guerre Son Ngoc Minh was a deliberate attempt to appeal to Khmer nationalists who opposed Sihanouk and was based on the exiled Son Ngoc Thanh. Thank being replaced by Minh, ala Ho Chi Minh.
Son Ngoc Minh as the first communist leader of Cambodia
Son Ngoc Minh was the leader of the first congress of the leftist Khmer Issarak groups. They founded the United Issarak Front. In 1950, he formally declared Cambodia’s independence, with the UIF at the time controlling around 1/3 of the country. Ta Samouth, the last Communist leader before Pol Pot was in his government.
After the 1954 Geneva Convention he would leave Cambodia for North Vietnam with a number of other leading communists of the time. This was to prove a crucial turning point in the left-wing politics of Cambodia.
Founding of the Khmer Peoples Revolutionary Party
In 1951 Son Ngoc Minh founded the KPRP with Tou Samouth and served as its first leader, before leaving in 1954. From then on the party entered a relative wilderness period, backing and frothing between whether to Support Sihanouk, as well as taking part in electoral politics through the Peoples Party.
After increasing amounts of purges and defections, Tou Samouth would become leader in 1960, with the party morphing in the Workers Party of Kampuchea (WPK), would would lately become the Khmer Rouge.
Son Ngoc Minh in Vietnam and later death
Many senior communist figures, such as Son Ngoc Minh stayed in Vietnam, further distancing themselves from communist fighters that had remained in Cambodia. Technically at least he remained a leading figure in the party until his death. The reality though was that with the Khmer Rouge drifting further towards Maoism those in Vietnam would either remain peripheral figures, or would end up executed when they did eventually return.
In 1972 and at the request if Ieng Sery he was sent to Beijing for treatment for high blood pressure. His death on December 22nd 1972 further decreased the power base of the Vietnamese based communists, and thus gave more power to Pol Pot and the Paris Clique.
He was though never denounced by the Khmer Rouge, nor by the Kampuchean Peoples Revolutionary Party (now known as the CPP). He is generally seen as a Cambodian patriot, not overtly sullied by connections to the Khmer Rouge.