KRABAO COMMUNE, Prey Veng province – The ashes of Chea Sim, the longtime president of the ruling CPP who died on June 8, were returned to his home village here on Friday in a grand ceremony presided over by the country’s supreme monks.
The ashes of Chea Sim and those of his wife, Nhem Soeun, who died in 2009, were delivered along with large golden busts of the couple to a purpose-built stupa on the family’s palatial 5-hectare estate in Kanleng Chrov village.
“The reason we brought his ashes to remain here is because this place is his home village,” said Cheam Him, a CPP councilor in Preah Sihanouk province who headed the committee that organized Chea Sim’s “100 day” ceremony.
Attended by senior government officials including Interior Minister Sar Kheng—Chea Sim’s brother-in-law—Senate President Say Chhum and deputy prime ministers Men Sam An and Yim Chhay Ly, Friday’s ceremony began with hundreds of luxury SUVs departing from Phnom Penh in the morning.
The convoy made its way from Chea Sim’s longtime home near the Senate, down Norodom Boulevard, across the Chroy Changvar bridge and on to Prey Veng’s Komchay Mear district, where it arrived in Kanleng Chrov village at about 11 a.m.
Thousands of locals were treated to lunch outside the former Senate president’s gated estate as the ceremony to deliver his ashes to their final resting place began inside.
Senior government officials and family members led a procession in which military officers—dressed in funeral white—carried the large metal busts of Chea Sim and Nhem Soeun, along with the urns containing their ashes, to a prayer hall inside the stupa.
Great supreme patriarchs Tep Vong and Bou Kry, joined by a dozen other monks, blessed the statues and urns with jasmine flowers and water, as family, friends and dignitaries lit incense and lowered their heads in prayer.
Mr. Kheng and Mr. Chhum declined to speak to reporters.
Chan Oeun, a 77-year-old woman from a neighboring village, said that she was among a group of people who Chea Sim recruited to join him in fighting against the Khmer Rouge, in which he had served as a military commander before defecting and fleeing to Vietnam in 1978.
“Samdech Chea Sim led a group of people who went into the forest for three months and then he continued to go to Vietnam to collect the forces to fight against the Khmer Rouge troops,” she said.
“At that time I also joined with Samdech Chea Sim’s group and went to Vietnam.”
Chea Sim would return to Cambodia in 1979 as a leader of the Vietnam-backed United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea, toppling the Khmer Rouge and beginning years of Vietnamese occupation of the country.
Chea Sim was named the new regime’s interior minister, and built a formidable political base.
“Among the former Khmer Rouge cadres, Minister of the Interior Chea Sim wielded the most power,” wrote Evan Gottesman in his book “Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge.”
Following Chea Sim’s death earlier this year, Human Rights Watch put out a statement highly critical of the CPP leader, saying that his death was a reminder of the failure to hold to account many of those responsible for Khmer Rouge atrocities.
It also said that the former interior minister set a precedent for abusive tactics among security forces that continues today.
“Chea Sim was best known among Cambodians for running the police state in the 1980s that imprisoned and tortured people for peaceful political activities,” HRW Asia director Brad Adams said in the statement.
“His legacy continues to this day, with unreformed security forces run for the interests of the ruling party instead of the public good.”
But those who gathered outside his estate on Friday said Chea Sim would be remembered as a hero.
“I have a life to live right now because Samdech Chea Sim’s group helped and rescued our country from the Pol Pot regime,” said Srey Nhen, 71, a resident of Krabao commune.
“I love him because even though he became a big leader of Cambodia, he always came to help our people who live here.”