PHNOM PENH, (Khmer Times) – A national day of mourning for Chea Sim, the long serving president of the ruling party, will be held on June 19. But political analysts already are speculating about a shuffle at the top of the Cambodia’s narrow political pyramid.
Until his death Monday at age 82, Chea Sim had served as president of the ruling Cambodia’s People’s Party (CPP) since 1991, longer than the political memories of much of the nation’s population.
Sidelined by a stroke 15 years ago, Chea Sim was known to most of Cambodians as the grey-haired, grandfatherly face on the left side of the familiar CPP billboards that show the three heads of Cambodia’s ruling triumvirate.
For Prime Minister Hun Sen, the man in the middle of the triumvirate billboard, it may have been politically useful to keep in place an infirm octogenarian as head of a once powerful party faction. As recently as 2004, Hun Sen’s police had to escort the Chea Sim, then Senate President, to a flight to Bangkok so his temporary successor could expedite legislation needed by the Prime Minister.
Today, that faction is headed by Sar Kheng, brother in law of Chea Sim, and Cambodia’s Interior Minister since 1993. A native of Svay Rieng, the same province as the late party president Sar Kheng, is the nation’s most senior deputy prime minister, having held that post since 1993.
“Mr. Kheng is the second person after Mr. Hun Sen,” said Ou Virak, president of Future Forum Policy Research Institute. He added that Mr. Kheng and Say Chhum, the new Senate President, now are near the top of the nation’s political hierarchy.
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members expressed regret on the demise of Mr. Chea Sim, but stressed they did not care about the new leaders of CPP.
CNRP’s spokesman Yem Ponhearith said that all people and politicians are mourning Chea Sim’s death. “We also pay our respects,” he added.
“However, we will not be overly concerned, because the country and party has systems in place,” Mr. Ponhearith said, adding that it will also not affect the culture of dialogue because Mr. Hun Sen has done his duty as president of the CPP since Mr. Chea Sim was sick.
He added that it is the CPP’s internal regula ion to choose the president of the party. “According to its internal regulation, the vice president will be chosen to be president of the Party [after the president has died],” he said.
Mr. Ponhearith said that he cannot predict now who will take the seat of vice president or the other seats. “I do not know because CPP has many human resources.”
Mr. Sok Ey San, CPP’s spokesman, said Hun Sen will become CPP president. But he said he did not know who will become the party vice president or secretary general. He said: “We will wait until the CPP congress to decide that.”
Another political analyst agreed with the heightened importance of the Interior Minister and the new Senate President: “They are the left hand and the right hand of Mr. Hun Sen.”
“Mr. Chea Sim was a silent and soft person, he never reacted or attacked anyone else, but he played a key role in coordinating CPP unity,” he said, referring to the premium placed in the ruling party on maintaining a unified front to outsiders.
Chea Sim may have been a soft spoken gentleman in his later years, but his career was marked by half a century of hardball politics.
Born about 10 kilometers west of Vietnam, in what was then called French Indochina, Chea Sim joined the ant-colonialist Issarak guerrillas at the age of 19. A communist revolutionary through the 1960s, he served as a Khmer Rouge commander of the Eastern Zone from 1975 to 1978.
Due to his geographical proximity to Vietnam and familiarity with the language and culture, he was able to escape to Vietnam in 1978, when the Khmer Rouge started killing cadres in the East. He joined forces with Hun Sen, another Khmer Rouge defector, and the two men returned several months later to Cambodia, leading an anti-Khmer Rouge army backed by Vietnam’s army.
In Phnom Penh, Chea Sim persuaded other Khmer Rouge commanders to defect, bolstering his party faction. A decade ago, when peace definitively settled over Cambodia and selective trials started of former Khmer Rouge leaders, prosecutors passed over former Khmer Rouge officials who were inside the government.
On Tuesday, this policy was criticized from San Francisco by Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.
“Evidence against Chea Sim was presented to the United Nations-supported Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the tribunal created in 2006 to bring to justice “senior leaders” and others ‘most responsible’ for Khmer Rouge crimes from 1975-1979,” he wrote in a press release. “However, the evidence was not seriously pursued because of the political control exercised over the court by Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge member.
Mr. Ey San said that he is not surprised with HRW’s criticism. “Brad Adams has always attacked the CPP. He is an American, and his ideology has remained from the cold war and is an imperialist ideology, and thus believed that the CPP is still a communist party even though Cambodia adopts a liberal multi-party democratic system,” he said.
This criticism is not expected to resonate greatly inside Cambodia where state television is preparing the Kingdom for a Wat Botum park cremation ceremony that is to be worthy of a head of state.
“On his hands were the blood of many victims,” alleged Kem Ley, founder of a new political movement, Khmers for Khmers.
But he said that, for Cambodia today, the lesson of Chea Sim is that the nation should avoid a gerontocracy, where elderly statesmen cling to their posts until their last breaths. “He was sick for many years, but he was still President of the Senate,” said Mr. Ley, who styles himself as a reformist. “It is not a good example – Cambodian people should avoid this.”
Chea Sim’s portrait, along with the other two Samdechs, is ubiquitous in Cambodia. KT Photo: Fabien Mouret