A day after the death of CPP President Chea Sim, Say Chhum, the ruling party’s secretary-general, was on Tuesday appointed to succeed him as the president of the Senate, while preparations began for the June 19 national day of mourning for the late figurehead.
After long suffering from deteriorating health due to diabetes and a stroke in October 2000, Chea Sim, who had served as the president of the Senate since its creation in March 1999, died Monday afternoon, leaving a vacancy at the head of the rubber-stamp legislative body.
Mr. Chhum, who was the Senate’s vice president and routinely served as its acting president, was in April named as heir apparent to the presidency and took little time to convene his colleagues Tuesday to make the change official.
In a session lasting 30 minutes, the 51 senators present, including nine from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, unanimously approved Mr. Chhum’s candidacy. In a subsequent vote, 50 senators approved Mr. Chhum’s fellow CPP Senator Ney Pena as the body’s new vice president.
After the successful vote for Mr. Chhum, Senate spokesman Mam Bun Neang told reporters that it was not unreasonable for the Senate to convene so quickly after the passing of its president to approve a replacement.
“According to constitutional law and the internal rules and conditions of the Senate, when the president of the Senate dies, the Senate can vote to select the new president,” Mr. Bun Neang said. “We are very shocked and we are very sad that we lost the famous hero of the nation.”
In a circular issued by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday night, June 19 was named as the official day of national mourning for Chea Sim.
“Chea Sim, president of the Senate and CPP, for his whole life sacrificed his energy and struggled to rescue the country, and he especially struggled to rescue the country from the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime in 1979, and continued to develop the country like this until now,” the circular said.
“All ministries, institutes, schools, public hospitals, private institutions, civil servants, armed forces and pagodas, and all the people in the country must fly the flag at one-third of the flagpole on June 19,” it added.
“All radio stations, all national and private television stations must suspend any programs or the broadcast of any other films that have a happy feeling on June 19.”
Chea Sim served as deputy chairman of the United Front for the National Salvation of Kampuchea, which was organized by the Vietnamese Communists to aid in their overthrow of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in Phnom Penh in 1979.
Alongside the present National Assembly President Heng Samrin, who led the Front, and Pen Sovann, today an opposition lawmaker, Chea Sim helmed the creation of a new regime after Pol Pot’s overthrow, and would go on to play a dominant role in the new government.
A Human Rights Watch statement released Tuesday said Chea Sim’s brief tenure as interior minister between 1979 and 1981 saw him establish a system of prisons and brutal police forces to serve the new regime’s interests—a legacy the group said continues to this day.
“The objective of this new system was to repress all opposition to the new government, including armed insurgencies, nonviolent opposition groups, and individuals engaging in peaceful dissent,” Human Rights Watch said.
“Arrests on political grounds were routinely carried out, detention was almost always without charge or trial, and prisoners were often held indefinitely on the basis of unsubstantiated or false allegations,” it added.
Outside Chea Sim’s home in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district Tuesday morning, his former comrades bid farewell to the old communist party heavyweight as officials on the other side of the city began preparing Wat Botum park for a ceremony to cremate his body on June 19.
“We remember together the struggle to liberate the country, and we are sorry to have lost a leader of the country who lived together [with us] in the struggle in order to liberate the country from colonialism and the Pol Pot genocide,” Mr. Samrin told reporters outside Chea Sim’s house.
Tourism Minister Thong Khon, who served as governor of Phnom Penh between 1983 and 1985 under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), said the death of Chea Sim was a great loss for the country.
“We are very sad and very sorry to have lost Samdech Chea Sim,” Mr. Khon said. “It is a huge loss for Cambodia, because he was an extraordinary hero in liberating the country from the Pol Pot genocide, and there is no bigger achievement than this.”
Outside the Senate on Tuesday, Kong Korm, who succeeded Mr. Hun Sen as the PRK’s foreign minister in the 1980s, but now leads the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) in the Senate, questioned the decision to replace Chea Sim so soon after his death.
“If we think about ethics, there seems to be a bad feeling [to do this] while we are sharing in the condolences,” Mr. Korm said. “If it was not necessary, voting after the completion of the funeral would have been better.”
Mr. Korm said by telephone on Monday night that the death of Chea Sim had also been felt on his side of politics.
“At the very least, he helped to have the Paris Peace Agreement and democracy, and changed the livelihoods of the people to develop the nation,” Mr. Korm said.
(Additional reporting by Chhorn Chansy and Alex Willemyns)