Senate President Chea Sim turns 82 today. Once the only rival to the prime minister’s power, his role is increasingly ‘symbolic’, with the premier assuming even his role as head of the Cambodian People’s Party
In June, at formal celebrations marking the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the Cambodian People’s Party, party president Chea Sim was – as has increasingly been the norm – nowhere in sight.
As honorary president Heng Samrin and vice-president Hun Sen released doves into the sky, the image of the CPP’s leadership triumvirate, which stares down at Cambodians from billboards across the country, was incomplete.
Elderly, sick and housebound, the man that in theory leads the ruling CPP has for years taken a backseat on the political stage, even as his party has repeatedly sought to play down his health problems.
The politician, who turns 82 today, has diabetes and suffered a stroke in 2000.
But his absence in front of the party faithful this year is not what made the anniversary event remarkable. It is that Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is ranked second in the party, was formally referred to as acting CPP president for the first time, making him the official head of both party and government.
According to government sources, Hun Sen has all but assumed Sim’s role in the CPP, except in title, paving the way for him to take over when the party elder dies.
While Sim’s signature still appears on documents at the Senate, where he serves as president, his work there has long been performed by Senate First Deputy President Say Chhum.
The role of Sim, who at one time was viewed as a near equal to Hun Sen, is now, in the words of one CPP central committee member who declined to be named, purely “symbolic”.
But while Hun Sen becoming CPP president would officially consolidate his position at the pinnacle of both ruling party and government, it is believed that he may well refuse to replace his erstwhile rival when the time for that decision comes.
“According to the legal procedure, Hun Sen would become the chairman of the CPP. But I have heard that Hun Sen has refused and he will hand it over to Say Chhum instead,” a senior government official who requested anonymity said this week, adding that nothing was yet set in stone.
“Say Chhum [who also serves as CPP secretary-general and is ranked No5 in the politburo] is a man in the middle, so he could unite the party.”
The long goodbye
Chea Sim heads a faction of the CPP that while once powerful – he, not Hun Sen, was in the late 1980s often referred to as Cambodia’s “strongman” by the international press – has had its power gradually stripped away over the years.
“Despite his relatively low profile outside the country, Cambodian officials and many diplomats in Phnom Penh describe Chea Sim as the real power center in Cambodia,” wrote the LA Times in a September 1990 profile titled Cambodia’s Humble Populist Hero.
“‘He is the faceless strongman of the regime,’ in the words of one diplomat.”
But following an attempted coup in 1994 by disgruntled CPP officials – which Hun Sen reportedly had to put down using Funcinpec party soldiers for lack of his own loyal forces – Hun Sen moved to shore up his own network.
He insisted that he, not Chea Sim, be able to appoint the next national police chief. Hun Sen chose Hok Lundy, who would prove to be a reliable stalwart in the years to come.
He also began the process of turning his personal bodyguard unit into the de-facto army it resembles today and took control of the gendarmerie.
“This was a seismic shift within the CPP, soon making Mr Hun Sen unquestionably the most powerful man in the party and country,” according to Human Rights Watch Asia director Brad Adams.
“He became so powerful that he could undertake the July 1997 coup against Prince Ranariddh, Nhek Bun Chhay and Funcinpec over the opposition of Chea Sim, Sar Kheng, defence minister Tea Banh and even the head of the army, Ke Kim Yan.”
In 2004, Chea Sim was unceremoniously escorted out of the country by Lundy’s police after he refused to sign off, as acting head of state, on constitutional changes that would pave the way for the CPP and Funcinpec to form a coalition government.
Sim was reportedly angry that his allies were being cut out of cabinet positions doled out in a deal between Hun Sen and Funcinpec leader Norodom Ranariddh. The decision to frog march Sim onto a plane bound to Bangkok for “medical treatment” paved the way for the then deputy
Senate president Nhek Bun Chhay to sign the changes.
This uncharacteristically public show of CPP infighting is seen by many observers as a pivotal moment in the power struggle between the two men, the moment when the scales definitively tilted in Hun Sen’s favour.
“These events did not eliminate factionalism but severely undercut the power and influence of the faction led by Chea Sim,” said Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defence Force Academy.
“The events of July 2004 were unprecedented because they publicly exposed factionalism in the Cambodian People’s Party and the rift between Hun Sen and Chea Sim.”
But while Sim’s faction was left “seriously weakened”, his network still remained in place, with Sar Kheng, his powerful brother-in-law and number four in the party, remaining in charge of the Interior Ministry, Thayer said. A July 2009 diplomatic cable from the US Embassy illustrated that Sim’s group was still believed to have had some clout just five years ago.
“With the 2008 elections well behind it, the government can now turn its attention to its critics. Hun Sen, perceiving the need to deal with his own ‘blue’ conservative faction in the CPP (old warriors Chea Sim and Heng Samrin), must show he has the power to enforce strict measures to uphold social order,” the cable said.
But even that diminishing power would continue to be chipped away at.
In 2009, Ke Kim Yan – linked to Kheng by the marriage of their children – was removed from his position as army chief and replaced by Pol Saroeun, a long-time Hun Sen supporter. A number of officials close to the Chea Sim faction, including his chief bodyguard, were arrested in 2011.
Divide and conquer
But while severely diminished, Sim’s faction is still the only one that holds any counterweight in the party, according to the senior government official.
He added, however, that Kheng is in no position to challenge Hun Sen, unless outside forces, like Vietnam, which groomed the CPP leadership and propped up the PRK government in the 1980s following the invasion that toppled the Khmer Rouge, were improbably to play a role.
And while defections to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which now holds 55 seats in parliament and could win the next national elections, are a possibility, Hun Sen’s control over the watchdogs of power make that unlikely, the official added.
“No one dares to leave the CPP, because all their documents are in the hands of the Anti-Corruption Unit. So if you leave the CPP, all those documents will go to the court,” he said, explaining that evidence of corruption could easily be unearthed if Hun Sen wanted to find it.
Nonetheless, the premier remains “afraid”, he said.
“Hun Sen is a person who follows up every bit of information, and all the information is in hands … he has many intelligence agents in nightclubs, restaurants and hotels in Phnom Penh.”
For Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, this is part and parcel of the PM’s long-term strategy.
“For Hun Sen, ruling is a constant game of anticipating and defusing potential threats within his own party, as well as from the opposition. The aim is to keep every competing source of power weak and divided.”
The continuing rivalry between Hun Sen and Sar Kheng is one reason analysts posit that the premier will choose not to take the CPP presidency.
“The new party leader must be able to unite the diverse party wings, to mediate between different interests and, finally, to strengthen the CPP’s appearance in a society with a growing democratic competition,” said Dr Markus Karbaum, an independent consultant specialising in Cambodian politics. Say Chhum, CPP secretary-general, fits the bill, he added.
But CPP figures publicly insist such talk is premature.
“[Chea Sim] is still the president of the party, and his energy and memory are still good. Therefore, we have never debated about his position,” Chea Son, a senator, said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan insisted that, even as acting president, Hun Sen “always consults with Samdech Chea Sim” and Heng Samrin.
Siphan also brushed off the historical rivalry as “rumours that have been floating around Cambodia since 1992”.
“The CPP is very strong still, from the grassroots to the top. We don’t go with individuals, we go with the organisation,” he said.
While last July’s disappointing election result could have fractured the party, political commentator Ou Virak believes it has actually pushed the CPP closer together, knowing that any disputes will “empower the opposition”.
But, nonetheless, “there’s a split on how far reforms should go”, he said.
“The question will be: who is the real reformer, Sar Kheng or Hun Sen? I don’t think the verdict is really out yet.”
It’s an important question. The Chea Sim-Sar Kheng faction was initially thought to be more hardline than Hun Sen, but starting in the mid-90s it became seen as comparatively moderate by the international community, said Adams of Human Rights Watch.
“The faction has not been involved in political violence in the last 20 years to my knowledge,” he said.
He added that diplomats have “long been hopeful and shown favouritism towards Sar Kheng because they think they can deal with him, they think he’s reasonable”.
In a 2004 interview with the Post, former International Republican Institute country director Ron Abney, a vocal supporter of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, appeared to say IRI would support Sim and Kheng if they broke away.
“There is a split within the CPP, there is a moderate wing, and God bless them. If the moderate wing of the CPP came to us and said we want to form a moderate CPP II, we’d probably work with them.”
But for those who have watched from the sidelines for decades, like veteran political analyst Chea Vannath, the time for a CPP II is well past. The top echelons of the party are, after all, men in their 60s, 70s and 80s that are focused on countering a resurgent opposition.
“Sar Kheng is now on his own because of the old age of Chea Sim. That generation, the whole team [in the CPP] is getting older. So they just try to accommodate each other and just pass on to the next generation,” she said.
“They are [all] in the same boat.”