Most people think of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party as the political force behind the country’s strongman, Prime Minister Hun Sen.
But the CPP existed before Hun Sen was even born, according to party members and historians. The party is celebrating its 50th anniversary today, marking its journey from a small, struggling nationalist movement to the dominant party in the country.
An estimated 10,000 CPP members will gather today at their headquarters in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district, where party President Chea Sim is scheduled to give a speech. CPP members in the provinces will also have ceremonies marking the birthday, said CPP cabinet chief Tep Ngorn.
“When the party took power in 1979, we had to deal with all the remains left from the war so it’s been very difficult for the CPP to solve the problems,” Tep Ngorn said. “However, the CPP still tries to work step by step and now we are moving toward democracy.”
The CPP came to power with the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power. The party was the sole ruler of the country until the 1993 UN-sponsored elections, which led to a power sharing deal between the CPP and the royalist Funcinpec party.
Bickering between the coalition partners led to the 1997 factional fighting and tensions remained after the 1998 elections, which resulted in another shared power deal. Many observers say the 1997 fighting solidified Hun Sen’s rule and the CPP is seen as the dominant party in the coalition government, with Funcinpec as its junior partner.
Early on, the CPP was known by a different name, according to party members. They say the CPP was born out of the breakdown of the Indochinese Communist Party, which was made up of Cambodians, Vietnamese and Laotians.
Differences among ICP members and anti-Vietnamese sentiment led the party to split into three national parties in 1951. CPP National Assembly member Cheam Yeap said the CPP was born out of the Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party that was established in Cambodia after the ICP split.
“Each country needed to have their own party and make it strong to control the country,” Cheam Yeap said.
Although the CPP spent much of the 1980s and 1990s fighting the Khmer Rouge, the party’s origins are linked to the leaders of the ultra-Maoist movement like Pol Pot and Nuon Chea, who were members of the communist party in the 1950s and became the leaders of it.
Iv Chan, chief of the Royal University of Phnom Penh history department, said when Hun Sen, Chea Sim and other CPP members broke away from the Khmer Rouge and fled to Vietnam in 1977, they retained the original party name of 1951, but took out the word “Revolutionary.” After the 1993 elections, the ruling party became known as the CPP.
However, Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said that many parties try to link themselves to the communist party of the 1950s, and those links may be tenuous.
“That is a very tricky part of how to trace the party,” he said.