As King Norodom Sihamoni made his way across Independence Monument yesterday to light a ceremonial flame commemorating Cambodia’s 58th anniversary of its independence from France, he was flanked on either side by Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
Noticeably absent, for the second time in as many years, was the third member of the CPP triumvirate: Senate President Chea Sim. Mr Sim, who turns 79 next week, was unable to attend the celebrations due to health problems, officials said yesterday.
No Sambok, first secretary of the National Committee for Organizing National and International Festivals, said Mr Sim was unable to stand for the two-plus hours the ceremony spanned.
“He is old. He cannot stand for a long time, and at the event there are no chairs. No one can sit down,” Mr Sambok said.
Also citing health issues was spokesman for the Council of Ministers, Phay Siphan. Mr Siphan referred questions concerning the specifics to Mr Sim’s cabinet, but said health issues had led to his nonappearance at the ceremony.
“It’s related to his health,” said Mr Siphan. “I don’t know the details.”
It has been a difficult few months for Mr Sim, who is struggling with his health even as political problems mount.
At one of his last public appearances-at September’s Asean Inter Parliamentary Assembly-Mr Sim made an opening speech, but had to be assisted to the podium by his son-in-law. In August, Mr Sim was among a coterie seeing retired King Norodom Sihanouk off to Beijing, but appeared weak, and was physically escorted across the runway by the retired King and a bodyguard.
RCAF Lieutenant General Yim Leang, chief of Mr Sim’s bodyguard unit, denied that Mr Sim was suffering from a serious health ailment.
“He had a big cold. That’s the reason he was absent. It’s due to the change in weather,” he explained.
Meanwhile, as Mr Sim’s health problems become more visible, he has been facing growing trouble within his cabinet.
In August, the former chief of Mr Sim’s bodyguard unit, Lieutenant General Chhoeun Chanthan, was charged with illegal weapons possession and forgery. The following month, a sweep of Mr Sim’s cabinet resulted in the arrests of four senior members alleged to have tricked Mr Sim into signing bogus contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Analysts and officials alike said there were likely no political reasons behind Mr Sim’s nonappearance at yesterday’s ceremony.
“What I heard is he was not very well,” said political analyst Lao Mong Hay. “If he wasn’t sick, he would certainly have attended this ceremony.”
Independence Day celebrations were also held in each of the country’s provincial capitals, according to Mr Sambok of the festival organizing committee.
“This day is very important for our people to remind us of our heroes who died to protect the country,” he said.
His words were echoed by those attending the celebration at Independence Monument.
“We got our freedom from the French. And now we are so proud and happy,” said Pork Srey Mom, 18, a senior at Wat Koh High School. As Ms Mom spoke, scores of her classmates stood cheering behind her; waving Cambodian flags and plastic flowers; hoisting pictures of the royal family.
“I am very happy today,” she added.
A hundred meters away, rows of scouts from Preah Sisowath High School shifted from one foot to another, keeping up a tireless rendition of “Sovanna Phum.”
“I’m very excited to attend this event, this is the third time I’ve been here ” said Muong Virak, 14.
“I came to celebrate the ceremony and see the King lighting the candle. It’s very important to remember how the King demanded peace from the foreign country.”
Standing beneath a congratulatory banner, Neang Sina Vathanak, director of legislation affairs at the Ministry of Justice, said he was proud to be taking part in the day’s festivities.
“We celebrate independence day every year. We never miss Nov 9. It’s in gratitude of King Sihanouk and the patriots who died in protection of our country,” he said. “It’s a proud ceremony for Khmer people who liberated themselves from being a French colony.”
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)