Ahead of an internal CPP vote to replace the ruling CPP’s late president, Chea Sim, this weekend, Interior Minister Sar Kheng and Senate President Say Chhum, two of the party’s most senior figures, were on Sunday granted the title of “samdech,” joining an elite list made up mostly of royalty.
The party will hold a congress on June 20 to appoint Prime Minister Hun Sen as its new president and replace him as the vice president, with the names of Mr. Kheng and Mr. Chhum dominating speculation surrounding the vice presidency.
Chea Sim had served as the president of the CPP since 1991 and was one of three party leaders—alongside Mr. Hun Sen and CPP “honorary president” Heng Samrin—to hold the honorific of “samdech.” King Norodom Sihamoni has now extended the elite royal title to Mr. Kheng and Mr. Chhum as well.
In separate decrees, the king thanked the two senior CPP leaders for their services to the monarchy and the nation.
“[The king] has an understanding that Sar Kheng is an outstanding leader who has the respect of the people and loyalty to the throne, and protects and respects Buddhism and social justice for the sustainability of royalism in Cambodia, and grants the title of Samdech Kralahorm,” the first decree said.
The other, nearly identical decree appoints Mr. Chhum as “Samdech Vibol Sena Pheakdei.”
Mr. Kheng’s new title roughly translates as “the Interior Ministry’s highest official,” while Mr. Chhum’s means “prosperous and loyal highest official.”
Mr. Kheng and Mr. Chhum join only four other commoners who hold the title, all from the CPP: Mr. Hun Sen, Mr. Samrin, Royal Palace Minister Kong Sam Ol and Mr. Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany.
Others with the royal title include King Sihamoni himself, Queen Mother Norodom Monineath, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, Prince Norodom Chakrapong, Princess Norodom Arunrasmey, and Tep Vong and Bou Kry, patriarchs of Cambodia’s two Buddhist sects.
Ou Virak, a political consultant and founder of the Future Forum think tank, said he believed that the granting of the titles was intended to promote unity within the ruling party following the death of Chea Sim, who was long believed to lead a faction within the party that competed with that of Mr. Hun Sen.
“Hun Sen probably feels the need to soothe fears he’s going to exert too much power in the CPP,” Mr. Virak said. “Everybody knows he is the sole power in the CPP now, pretty much unchallenged, and now with Chea Sim passing away, I think he’s doing it to soothe fears he’s taking over.
“This is something that the old guard has been fearful of, and this is one way of soothing those fears. By promoting Sar Kheng and Say Chhum to that role, he gives the message that it’s going to be business as usual,” Mr. Virak added.
“It is a huge indication of what’s to come in the CPP. If you look at the role of Say Chhum, he has been the secretary-general of the party, but he has not been so visible. This could be an indication that he is going to be made more public.”
Yet CPP spokesman Chhim Phal Virun said the new titles for Mr. Kheng and Mr. Chhum were not related to the internal machinations of the ruling party, or to the vote to choose a vice president.
“It is not related,” Mr. Phal Virun said. “When we look at the royal decree that granted the title to Sar Kheng as ‘Samdech Kralahorm,’ and Say Chhum as ‘Samdech Vibol Sena Pheakdei,’ it is because they have served the country and people loyally.”
“Therefore, it is not connected to the positions that will be selected in the future, and so we separate it,” he said.
Son Soubert, a former member of the Constitutional Council of Cambodia whose late father, Son Sann, was one of three commoners given the “samdech” title under Prince Norodom Sihanouk, said he believed the bestowing of the title upon Mr. Kheng and Mr. Chhum was a reflection of internal party politics, not service to the nation.
Mr. Soubert said his father, who was also Prince Sihanouk’s long-serving finance minister and later prime minister, as well as former Prime Minister Penn Nouth and prominent official Nhiek Tioulong were only named “samdech” after making key contributions to the throne.
“It was to recognize the eminent service rendered to the kingdom by these personalities—and in the case of the three personalities under King Sihanouk, it was true that they did a great deal for King Sihanouk and for the kingdom. But, at this time, there are too many samdechs,” Mr. Soubert said.
“Before, it was very rare for a civilian to get this title,” he said.
“If you look into it today, in the CPP there are two tendencies: the tendency of Chea Sim, and the tendency of Hun Sen, and now you have two here from the tendency of Chea Sim, and Hun Sen has his wife, so now it’s two and two.”