Chea Sim, Long-Serving CPP President, Dead at 82

Chea Sim, a dominating figure in the 1980s communist regime that followed the overthrow of Pol Pot, and who later became the CPP’s founding president, died in Phnom Penh on Monday. He was 82.

The long-serving CPP figurehead, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 2000 and subsequently shied from the spotlight amid worsening health, died at his home near the Senate at about 3:45 p.m., his chief bodyguard Yim Leang said.

Chea Sim addresses delegates on the final day of the CPP's extraordinary general assembly in Phnom Penh on January 27, 1997. (Reuters)
Chea Sim addresses delegates on the final day of the CPP’s extraordinary general assembly in Phnom Penh on January 27, 1997. (Reuters)

According to Chea Son, his former cabinet chief, Chea Sim suffered a major aggravation of his health condition a week ago, leading to his death. Mr. Son said preparations were underway to cremate his body at Wat Botum park.

Born in Svay Rieng province’s Romeas district in November 1932, Chea Sim studied ethics and Pali in a Buddhist pagoda before joining Son Ngoc Minh’s anti-colonial “Issarak” movement as a teenager in early 1952.

Joining the Vietnamese-backed communist Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party in 1959, he quickly rose to become a district party secretary in the country’s east, continuing to serve there as a mid-level leader until the Khmer Rouge’s 1975 victory, and afterward.

Amid increasing purges of the Eastern Zone’s leaders by Pol Pot’s regime, which rid the region of most of its long-serving leaders, Chea Sim, by then a sector military commander, fled with others to Vietnam in 1978.

Alongside Heng Samrin, who is now president of the National Assembly, and Pen Sovann, now an opposition lawmaker, he returned to Cambodia later that year as one of the founding leaders of the Vietnamese-backed United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea.

At a December 2, 1978, ceremony in Kratie province presided over by Vietnamese communist leader Le Duc Tho, Chea Sim was named the Front’s deputy leader to Mr. Samrin.

“Chea Sim, forty-six, was two years older than Samrin. Thickset, with dense, closely cropped hair, Sim appeared to be one of the few Cambodians not suffering from malnutrition,” wrote Evan Gottesman of the ceremony in his 2004 book “Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge.”

Upon Vietnam’s overthrow of Pol Pot on January 7, 1979, Chea Sim was named the new regime’s interior minister pending the 1981 elections, and soon outpaced both Mr. Samrin and Mr. Sovann in building a political base that made him indispensable to his Vietnamese handlers.

“Among the former Khmer Rouge cadres, Minister of the Interior Chea Sim wielded the most power,” noted Mr. Gottesman in his book, which is based on detailed minutes of Council of Ministers meetings in the 1980s.

“Sim…was an old-fashioned Cambodian politician who understood how to nurture a patronage system and how to inspire loyalty in his followers,” Mr. Gottesman wrote. “Valued by the Vietnamese for his ability to co-opt Khmer Rouge defectors, Chea Sim recruited large numbers of Eastern Zone cadres and quickly constructed a personal power base.”

Chea Sim, left, and Prime Minister Hun Sen read a magazine on January 7, 2004, during a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. (Reuters)
Chea Sim, left, and Prime Minister Hun Sen read a magazine on January 7, 2004, during a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. (Reuters)

Contrary to the ousted Khmer Rouge forces who were by then mounting an insurgency from the Thai border, Chea Sim grew to epitomize the wing of Cambodian communism—centered in the former Eastern Zone—that had been more comfortable with a relationship with Vietnam.

Jacques Bekaert, the Bangkok Post’s Cambodia correspondent in the 1980s, noted that Chea Sim stuck to the bland Vietnamese-promoted rhetoric of Indochinese communism, even when addressing religious audiences.

“While celebrating ‘the magnificent revolution of the three Indochinese countries,’ Mr. Sim launched strong attacks on the ‘Peking hegemonist-expansionists, U.S. imperialism,’ and, of course, ‘the Thai ruling circles,’” Mr. Bekaert wrote after a 1984 speech Chea Sim delivered to Cham Muslims.

With Hun Sen, the regime’s erstwhile foreign minister and rising star, taking over as prime minister in January 1985 at the age of 33, Chea Sim, by then 52 and with a strong influence over the regime’s security forces, found a new rival within the party.

As the 1980s wore on, the more reformist Mr. Hun Sen increasingly maneuvered for pro-market changes similar to those being carried out in communist China, inevitably coming up against Chea Sim’s deeper patronage networks and their rigid commitment to an older style of socialism.

Yet as the country moved closer to the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that eventually replaced the regime with a market system more conducive to Mr. Hun Sen’s objectives, Chea Sim would continue to hold sway over the prime minister inside a party structure that still dominated the state.

With Mr. Hun Sen viewed as the patron of a bizarre but failed effort inside the regime to launch a state-backed opposition party in 1989, Chea Sim, with his base still in the security forces, launched a power grab decimating reformists close to the prime minister.

“After a series of arrests, shuffles and realignments, the influence of Mr. Chea Sim, 20 years older than Mr. Hun Sen and president of the National Assembly, is more apparent,” read an August 1990 New York Times report headlined “Political Rivals Jockey in Phnom Penh.”

“Some of Mr. Hun Sen’s closest, most pragmatic and non-ideological allies have been ousted or pushed aside, replaced by people regarded as aligned, beholden or related to Mr. Chea Sim, who is 58 years old,” it said.

Allies of Chea Sim, including his brother-in-law and current Interior Minister Sar Kheng, were promoted, while allies of Mr. Hun Sen, including current Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, were stripped of their roles.

“Asked several months ago about the position of Hun Sen, the young and highly visible Cambodian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, a Cambodian official smiled broadly. ‘Don’t forget Hun Sen is only No. 3 in the party,’ he said. ‘Chea Sim is No. 2,’” the New York Times reported.

Chea Sim, right, stands in a pavilion on Phnom Penh's riverside prior to a ceremony to inaugurate the Preah Ang Dangker shrine on June 11, 1991. (John Vink)
Chea Sim, right, stands in a pavilion on Phnom Penh’s riverside prior to a ceremony to inaugurate the Preah Ang Dangker shrine on June 11, 1991. (John Vink)

When the single-party state reformed itself into the CPP in 1991 ahead of the 1993 U.N.-sponsored elections, Chea Sim—his ascendence established—was named the party president. Mr. Hun Sen became his deputy and Mr. Samrin the party’s “honorary president.”

Yet the tables would turn less than five years later, with Mr. Hun Sen deftly staving off a coup attempt led by former Interior Minister Sin Song, but only with the help of armed forces offered by his rivals in the royalist Funcinpec party.

“Many CPP officials I interviewed said that virtually the entire CPP leadership was aware of and supported the coup, including senior members of the Chea Sim-Sar Kheng faction of the party,” Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, wrote last year of the failed putsch.

“Hun Sen extracted a heavy price from Chea Sim and Interior Minister Sar Kheng. At the time the police were the most powerful security force in the country, but they were firmly under the control of Chea Sim’s faction of the party,” Mr. Adams recounted.

“Vulnerable to charges of complicity in the coup, both had to accept Mr. Hun Sen’s terms, which were that he would appoint the next national police chief,” he wrote.

With Mr. Hun Sen taking control of the security forces from Chea Sim, and subsequently transforming his own personal bodyguard unit into the country’s best equipped force, the party balance shifted.

“This was a seismic shift within the CPP, soon making Mr. Hun Sen unquestionably the most powerful man in the party and country,” Mr. Adams concluded.

Even if depleted of the security forces, Mr. Sim, by then 62, would continue as the president of both the CPP and the National Assembly, and by 2003 was still referred to as the “best-connected” person inside the CPP.

However, sidelined to the presidency of Cambodia’s rubber-stamp Senate upon its establishment in March 1999, Mr. Sim would come to have little influence in the governing of Cambodia after his October 2000 stroke.

In a final show of his receding power in July 2004, Chea Sim, who was then serving as acting head of state in the absence of King Norodom Sihanouk, was escorted out of Cambodia and into Thailand by National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy, apparently for medical treatment.

Opposition lawmakers and observers speculated at the time that the CPP president had balked at signing off on controversial constitutional arrangements that would allow Mr. Hun Sen to form a new government after a one-year standoff with Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party.

In his absence, Funcinpec’s Nhiek Bun Chhay, who had served as Chea Sim’s deputy in the Senate and who became defense minister in the new government, signed off on the deal, ending the standoff.

In the years since, Mr. Hun Sen governed the country largely without the public presence of Chea Sim, who was too debilitated to serve in his largely honorary role as the Senate’s president in his final years.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said Monday that Mr. Hun Sen would automatically assume the position of the ruling party’s president, completing the power shift that started in the mid-1980s when he and Chea Sim led the socialist state.

Yet Mr. Eysan said the CPP would not forget the contribution that Chea Sim made to modern Cambodia.

“Chea Sim used one of his hands to stop the Khmer Rouge genocide that killed the people from happening again, while using his other hand to hold a hoe and a plow to lead the people to rebuild the country after the destruction of the genocidal regime,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)

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