Tong Siv Eng, the nation’s first woman parliamentarian and the figure credited with arranging a series of meetings to end the country’s civil war, was cremated at Wat Botum Sunday before a crowd of 1,000 mourners, diplomats and politicians.
King Norodom Sihanouk attended the morning ceremony to light her funeral pyre. Tong Siv Eng died Tuesday of a heart attack at 81. She had been staying at a Bangkok hospital for treatment of heart disease.
She was remembered by her daughter Kek Galabru, who founded Licadho, as an advocate for the poor and powerless.
“She had a tremendous energy and firm convictions that the plight of women and the poor must be improved,” said Kek Galabru. “I remember waking up to go to school and her constituents would be lined up outside the house waiting to see her.”
Tong Siv Eng’s triumph as a politician came as a peacemaker in the late 1980s between the warring factions of then-Prince Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Vietnamese-backed government. With her help, the two met three times at Fere-Entardenois, some 120 km from Paris, between December of 1987 and November, 1988. The meetings lead to the Paris Peace Accords, signed in 1991.
King Sihanouk wrote in a letter to Tong Siv Eng’s family that he was saddened by her death. “I wish to share my condolences for the loss of the life of one of our greatest nationalists,” he wrote. “The loss of HE Tong Siv Eng is the loss of the best child of the nation and of the Cambodian people. May her soul be at peace.”
The King bestowed on Tong Siv Eng and her husband Pung Peng Cheng, an adviser to the King, the Commander of the Royal Order of Cambodia medal. Pung Peng Cheng said he is pursuing construction of a hospital for poor children and mothers in Kandal province, one of Tong Siv Eng’s last wishes.
Hun Sen, who did not attend the cremation, also wrote a letter to her family, saying “the death of HE Tong Siv Eng is a great loss for her family and for the nation.”
Tong Siv Eng was born Oct 31, 1919, in Kompong Cham province as the second of three children. She studied in Ho Chi Minh City—then-Saigon—and Phnom Penh, taking a job as a teacher in 1941. She married Pung Peng Cheng at 19. In 1956, she began teaching King Sihanouk’s 12 children. She and her husband became two of the King’s closest aides.
She began public life in 1958, representing Kandal province as the nation’s first female parliamentarian. She took posts with then-Prince Sihanouk’s government, including Minister of Social Action, 1959-1963, and Minister of Health, 1963-1968.
She was elected to the parliament for a third term in 1968. Two years later she was ousted in the Lon Nol coup of 1970. She and her husband fled to France for two years, moving to Beijing in 1972 to be near King Norodom Sihanouk, who was there in exile until 1975. She returned in 1989 and was appointed a member of the Committee Amending Constitution of the state of Cambodia.
She successfully lobbied to remove the Cambodian Constitution’s death penalty provision. She became ill in 1993, and had not been politically active in precent years.
Tong Siv Eng is survived by her husband, two children, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, according to family members.
(Additional reporting by The Associated Press)
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