AFTER a one-year political deadlock following national elections held on July 27,
2003, Cambodia finally has a new government.
Chea Sim, foreground, followed by Hun Sen and Sar Kheng, back right, in this file photo, taken before cracks appeared in the smiling united front the Cambodian People's Party likes to present.
But the process of getting one has left open wounds within senior ranks of the ruling
Cambodian People's Party (CPP), lingering questions about the constitutionality of
the new coalition government and palpable concern over how a bloated, fractious cabinet
will manage the day-to-day responsibilities of running the country.
The deal was wrapped up quickly on Thursday morning, July 15, when 96 Members of
the National Assembly voted unanimously with a show of hands to approve a new cabinet
with Hun Sen as Prime Minister.
Hun Sen, who is Asia's longest serving political leader, was all smiles alongside
Funcinpec party boss Prince Norodom Ranariddh as the pair savored a rousing round
But the air of confidence that filled the National Assembly was in stark contrast
to the political shenanigans that have dogged inter-party negotiations since last
The CPP were outright victors - winning 73 of the 123 seats on offer in the National
Assembly. However, the result fell short of a constitutional mandate that requires
any party to win a two-thirds majority before it can form a government.
Heavy-handed squabbling and petty political rivalries dominated the race to forge
a coalition, which ended as most observers thought it would with a CPP-Funcinpec
More important was the lingering cloud of uncertainty over an all-too-public rupture
within the normally unified CPP.
In the absence of King Norodom Sihanouk - who is in self-imposed exile in North Korea
- Chea Sim was acting head of state, and the King had urged him to follow his conscience
in deciding whether to sign an amendment to the Constitution that would allow a package
show-of-hands vote at the heart of the coalition deal.
If Chea Sim was unhappy with the deal and decided not to sign he would have to abstain,
and as acting head of state this would require him to leave the country, allowing
the next in line to fill his shoes.
Chea Sim made a dramatic exodus from the country on Tuesday morning, with an escort
led by National Police Chief Hok Lundy - just hours before he was expected to sign-off
and allow parliament to sit.
That move stunned political observers and the diplomatic community, who feared an
unprecedented factional brawl had broken out within the party.
CPP officials then went into overdrive as they attempted to convince a skeptical
nation that the party had not departed from its trademark unified public persona.
Hun Sen advisor Om Yin Tieng said Chea Sim's inability to finalize the agreement
on behalf of Sihanouk and his sudden departure for Bangkok was solely for medical
reasons. This justification was later buttressed by a letter from Chea Sim posted
late Tuesday on King Sihanouk's website which was dated Monday, July 12 and which
described Sim's medical condition and his decision to seek medical attention in Thailand.
Yin Tieng's explanation for the deployment of police around Chea Sim's house and
beefed-up security in the capital was a scare in the adjacent Senate. Its secretariat
had called police claiming there were "terrorists" in the building. None
Of concern to diplomats were reports that soldiers from Brigade 70, Hun Sen's personal
bodyguard unit, were reported to have been positioned at Chea Sim's house late Monday
night, fueling speculation that Sim was bluntly presented with a stark choice: sign
the deal or leave the country.
Chea Sim flew to Bangkok and visited Bumrungrad Hospital where he underwent a routine
cardiogram, according to media sources in the Thai capital. He has a history of heart
Political analysts and government officials privately say that Chea Sim's refusal
to approve the new government was not related to debates over the finer points of
Constitutional law nor his concern for his health, but was rather a reflection of
the Chea Sim/Sar Kheng faction's displeasure with the make-up of the new cabinet
and Hun Sen's refusal to accede to their demands for a greater slice of the political
One senior government official said Chea Sim had demanded that Cham Prasidh, Minister
of Commerce; Chan Sarun, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries; and Lim
Kean Hor, Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology, be replaced with Sim-nominated
appointments, a request Hun Sen denied.
"Chea Sim is the victim," said the source who declined to be named. "The
Hun Sen-Chea Sim dispute is now out in the open so Hun Sen... can push this forward."
Political analysts point to a larger, longer-term trend within the CPP indicating
a gradual erosion of political power for Chea Sim and his traditional Prey Veng clique,
which rose to prominence after the initial overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
"The two most astute politicians in this country are Hun Sen and Sok An,"
said one analyst. "They work the issues every day and out-fox all their enemies."
"We used to say 'Chea Sim runs the party and Hun Sen runs the government',"
said one diplomat referring to Chea Sim's sudden departure from the country. "But
the tectonic plates have shifted. Hun Sen is now The Man on all fronts."
It is also noted that with the expansion of the cabinet to include seven Deputy Prime
Ministers (compared to two previously), Sar Kheng, Chea Sim's brother-in-law, will
no longer carry as much political clout in the government, and may not be acting
Prime Minister when the PM is out of the country.
After Sim's abrupt departure from the country, the CPP claimed Nhiek Bun Chhay was
next in line as Acting Head of State, an issue over which there is confusion. One
embassy said their analysis of the Constitution indicated that with Senate First
Deputy President Prince Sisowath Chivan Monirak out of the country, the next person
who would have been Acting Head of State was Prince Ranariddh. Whether or not this
could have been the case without an official letter from the King was also in dispute.
In the event, Nhiek Bun Chhay finally signed-off on the agreement on Tuesday, leaving
diplomats, political analysts and Cambodia-watchers scrambling for answers.
The rumor factories went into overdrive and most observers were stunned by how little
hard information was available. CPP sources either were unavailable to meet with
anyone outside party circles, would not talk openly on the phone, or just turned
their phones off.
One diplomat said he was still trying to confirm early on Wednesday morning whether
Chea Sim was even out of the country.
"We heard he was holed up in some back room in the Senate," said the diplomat.
Telephone lines to Khmer talk-back radio were jammed with callers objecting to Nhiek
Bun Chhay signing the deal. To make matters worse, the electricity grid and water
supply underwent a rare two-hour shutdown around Tuesday noon.
Police, perhaps unwittingly, fed the rumor mill, claiming their deployment was in
response to the possibility of widespread street protests.
These did not occur, but that final claim had some resonance. The last organized
street protests resulted in the anti-Thai riots in January 2003, when mobs razed
the Thai embassy and delivered Hun Sen his most embarrassing episode since the "Democracy
Square" demonstrations in 1998.
As for Chea Sim's immediate future, one CPP source was asked if he could return to
Cambodia. "It's just a mild heart condition, he can come back whenever he wants
to," came the reply.
The source was then asked: when? And the response: "He won't be back for some
time because he has also built-up a lot of holidays and is expected to take an extended