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Cambodian politics a one-man show after death of ruling-party veteran

Chea Sim, seated, attends the funeral of former King Norodom Sihanouk in Phnom Penh on Feb. 1, 2013. (Photo by Sebastian Strangio)

PHNOM PENH -- The recent death of Chea Sim, a key figure in Cambodia's politics since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979, has put a spotlight on the future of Prime Minister Hun Sen, his longtime ally and one of the world's longest-serving national leaders.

     Chea Sim died on June 8 at the age of 82. For more than three decades, he had been a pillar of the country's ruling establishment, serving for years as president of the formerly communist Cambodian People's Party, as well as president of the country's senate.

     As old comrades and colleagues paid their respects at Chea Sim's villa in Phnom Penh, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told local media that the party stalwart "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."  

     Hun Sen had declared June 19 -- the day Chea Sim was cremated in a ceremony near the Wat Botum Buddhist temple in Phnom Penh -- an official day of mourning, when flags flew at one-third mast.

Rise and decline

Though little known outside Cambodia, Chea Sim was a crucial figure in his country's politics following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. Along with Hun Sen and 81-year-old National Assembly President Heng Samrin, he dominated the communist regime that controlled Cambodia throughout the 1980s and maintained a prominent position in the multiparty system established after the end of the Cold War.

Chea Sim, then president of the Cambodian National Assembly, addresses a political meeting in Cambodia in 1983, four years after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime.   © Agence Kampuchea Presse

    Born in 1932 in a rural area of Svay Rieng Province near Cambodia's border with Vietnam, Chea Sim studied at a Buddhist pagoda and began his political career as an organizer among the monks. In 1952 he joined the anti-colonial Issarak movement and later the Cambodian communist party. Chea Sim continued to serve the communists -- also known as the Khmer Rouge -- after they seized power in April 1975, establishing a genocidal slave state that would eventually lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians. After rising to the post of district party secretary in the country's Eastern Zone, he fled to Vietnam in mid-1978 to escape the vicious political purges being carried out.

     Chea Sim served as deputy chairman of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, established by the Vietnamese communists in December 1978 to support their coming offensive against the Khmer Rouge regime, which was driven out of power by the Vietnamese army in January 1979. In the regime that replaced it, he became interior minister, drawing on his Khmer Rouge-era connections to carve out a prominent position.

     Throughout the 1980s, Chea Sim was a leading member of the Phnom Penh government, in firm control of the repressive state security apparatus. In his 2004 book "Cambodia After the Khmer Rouge," Evan Gottesman described Chea Sim as "an old-fashioned Cambodian politician who understood how to nurture a patronage system and how to inspire loyalty in his followers."

     But as time went by, his power was gradually eclipsed by that of Hun Sen, a political prodigy 20 years his junior, who was appointed prime minister in 1985 and played a key role in international peace talks seeking to end Cambodia's long civil war. Unlike the mutable Hun Sen, Chea Sim was less able to adapt to the more open political system established after the signing of the Paris peace accords that ended the civil war in October 1991. After suffering a stroke in October 2000, and increasingly outmaneuvered by Hun Sen, Chea Sim gradually withdrew from official duties.

The challenge of change

Chea Sim leaves behind a party that faces serious challenges as Cambodia moves toward national elections in 2018. In the previous poll in 2013, the CPP saw its share of National Assembly seats slashed from 90 to 68 of the total of 123 -- its worst electoral result since 1998. The Cambodia National Rescue Party, led by Hun Sen's nemesis Sam Rainsy, deftly capitalized on rising popular discontent about land grabs, ballooning income inequality and everyday corruption, which continue to plague the country despite political stability and impressive economic growth over the past two decades.

     After the shock election result, Hun Sen promised sweeping reforms. The government has since offered wage hikes to teachers and soldiers and reshuffled its cabinet to include a number of younger, more able technocrats. Two years on, however, the top leadership of the CPP remains mostly unchanged. In January, the 62-year-old Hun Sen marked his 30th year in power; many of his key aides and ministers have occupied senior posts since the 1990s, if not earlier. Before Chea Sim's death, six of the 10 highest-ranking members of the CPP's Politburo, in theory the party's key decision-making body, were founding members of the movement that helped to overthrow the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

     At the same time, old political problems persist: Illegal or semilegal logging continues to devastate Cambodia's forests, and land grabs by powerful people continue to make headlines. The government has also intensified its persecution of activists offering alternatives: The past two years have seen a series of violent crackdowns on demonstrations, as well as the jailing of opposition figures and land rights activists.

     As a result, the party finds itself out of touch with Cambodia's young population, nearly two-thirds of which is below the age of 30, according to the United Nations. "The greatest challenge for the CPP will be to reinvent itself into a party of the present," said Ou Virak, who heads the Future Forum, a Phnom Penh-based policy institute. "If you compare [party leaders] to the voting population, there's a disconnect there -- the majority are not even from the same generation."

      Given his long illness, the death of the CPP's longtime figurehead is unlikely to alter the internal dynamics of the party fundamentally. The CPP convened a special congress on June 20 that appointed Hun Sen as the new party president, while current secretary-general Say Chhum has already taken over the post of senate president. 

     However, observers say the passing of one of Hun Sen's main internal rivals may give him greater leverage to advance promised reforms and speed up the generational transition within the party. While Chea Sim's hard power had long been in decline, Ou Virak said, the CPP president played an important role as a party elder, helping to defuse personal disagreements and intraparty turf wars. Ou Virak added that this helped to maintain internal stability, but also prevented a necessary cleanout of aging officials and hangers-on.

     Ok Serei Sopheak, a development consultant who served as a political advisor to the CPP in the 1990s, said that with Chea Sim out of the picture, Hun Sen will likely have a freer hand in easing out party veterans and making the deep changes necessary to win back public support while maintaining the stability necessary for continued economic growth. "By becoming the president of the party, he will probably have more freedom to introduce reform policy, to promote younger reform-minded people into key institutions," Sopheak said.

     The wider question, however, is whether a greater reliance on Hun Sen, which many critics see as the root of the country's problems to begin with, is really the solution to the party's legitimacy deficit. Sopheak said that if Hun Sen now has more freedom than ever to make the right decisions, the reverse is also true. "If he fails," he said, "it will only be himself that is responsible."

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