Senate president Chea Sim (C) is helped as he leaves a Victory Day celebration at the Cambodian People’s Party headquarters in Phnom Penh, Monday, Jan. 07, 2012. Photograph: Hong Menea/Phnom Penh Post
Cheering the anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge, more than 10,000 members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party gathered at its headquarters yesterday to celebrate the victory of the party’s top brass and the Vietnamese army over the genocidal regime.
But amid the January 7 revelry, a notable voice was missing. For the first time in recent memory, CPP president Chea Sim did not deliver the keynote address.
Sim, who is also president of the Senate, has increasingly found himself out of the limelight while battling a string of illnesses his aides insist are little more than the common cold.
Although he appeared at yesterday’s event — a key occasion for the CPP to cement party ties — 80-year-old Sim had to be physically supported by two assistants as he made his way to the stage. A third bodyguard discreetly pushed a folded wheelchair behind the CPP stalwart.
An aide said yesterday Sim had a minor foot injury and stressed that he was suffering from nothing more than a sore throat.
“Samdech was not able to walk easily because of his sprained foot, and he could not deliver a speech because he has a cold and a sore throat. Otherwise, he has no problems,” Lieutenant General Yim Leang, the chief of Sim’s bodyguard unit, said.
Officials have sought to placate concerns over Sim’s health in recent years, but the ageing leader has repeatedly found himself begging off from high-level events for medical reasons.
In August, government officials were forced to publicly shoot down rumours that Sim had passed away after the news went speeding across social networks and blogs.
Sim —who, along with Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly president Heng Samrin, was one of the key Khmer Rouge defectors appointed to the Vietnam-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea in January, 1979 — normally delivers the fiery, propagandist Victory Day statement.
“Today is the 34th anniversary of the historic victory over the Pol Pot regime on January 7, 1979, that saved the Cambodian nation from genocidal rule. Because of the 7 January victory, the Cambodian people have everything today and look to the future with hope,” Samrin told the thousands of CPP members, students, girl and boy scouts, and foreign diplomats.
“This year, we celebrate the 34th anniversary of the January 7 Victory Day for the overall situation in which the Kingdom of Cambodia has been making progress in all fields,” he continued.
Recalling the “faithful” cadres among the senior CPP officials who toppled the Khmer Rouge with the assistance of Vietnam, Samrin stressed that countless lives were saved.
“The 7 January 1979 victory ended the darkest period, saved our people’s lives in a timely manner, won back every right and freedom for the people and established a strong foundation for the restoration and reconstruction of Cambodia,” said Samrin.
At least 1.7 million people died of exhaustion, starvation and illness or were executed between 1975 and 1979.
Samrin also used the speech to publicly offer the party’s support for the candidature of Hun Sen in the upcoming elections.
“I would solemnly affirm, once again, the support for the candidate of [Hun Sen] for the post of prime minister for the fifth legislative term and terms thereafter,” said Samrin. “It will be the most important and significant political event that will further the sustainable development of Cambodia.”
But while the CPP took pains to laud January 7 as a day of liberation, many remain adamant about their complex relationship with the day, which also marked the start of a decade-long Vietnamese occupation.
Opposition political activist Rong Chhun, President of the Cambodian Independent Teacher Association, said he continues to view it as a day of invasion by Vietnam.
“Seven January is not a day to be grateful, because after, Vietnam occupied Cambodia and many Cambodian people continued to die,” said Chhun.
To contact the reporter on this story: Vong Sokheng at firstname.lastname@example.org