The president of the Cambodian People's Party Chea Sim – once considered the second most powerful figure in the party – died on Monday at the age of 82. For some he was a national hero and on June 19 there will be a day of mourning held in his honour. For others he was a bloodthirsty villain. According to Human Rights Watch, it was a shame he was never held accountable for any atrocities committed within his district during the Khmer Rouge. The organisation also accused him of founding a security apparatus in government that committed numerous human rights violations. To get a better sense of Sim’s legacy and the significance of his death, Will Jackson this week spoke with independent analyst Ou Virak.
What’s your take on Human Rights Watch’s statement about Chea Sim?
Let’s look at the facts: he was a district secretary, the equivalent of someone heading a district. Were Chea Sim’s hands clean? No. But if you look at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia’s mandate, to me there’s no doubt the ECCC has no mandate to go as far as prosecuting people like him. Also you have to look at the fact that he left the Khmer Rouge and came back in with the Vietnamese troops. I think the reality was that many of the people who came back with the Vietnamese were not the most corrupt people in the world. Had they joined the Khmer Rouge? Yes. But if you look at what the Americans did, I think if I was a 16- or 17-year-old teenager back then, I might have joined too if I had been bombed to frustration and madness.
What about Chea Sim’s role in the government and what he did once he was back in Cambodia?
I met him personally and thought he was quite charismatic. He has the look of a strong leader. I don’t believe anyone in the CPP is clean but I don’t believe he’s the most corrupt person in the CPP either. He’s more of the traditional old-guard comrade communist who believed stability was needed.
How does the average Cambodian view Chea Sim and what’s been the reaction to his death?
The average Cambodian doesn’t care. I don’t think they will mourn him. But people will look favourably on Chea Sim, they believe he is a niet tvu bon, a man who is kind hearted and a good Buddhist. He is seen to be peaceful. But because of that he is not seen as a key player so most people will just treat it as another passing day. Even the opposition have a favourable view of Chea Sim at least as someone who is not good but at least not so violent.
Is there any real significance to Chea Sim’s death?
He hasn’t had any real power with the CPP in the past 10 years or so. But one of the things he has done in the past 10 years is moderate any pushes for a changing of the guard by Hun Sen. Chea Sim would be the guy who would step in and say "slow down". Because of that I think there could be some changes. The slow changing of the guard within the CPP could speed up a bit. There could be a bit more happening before the 2018 election.
Are there any factions left in the CPP? Anyone who could, maybe not challenge Hun Sen, but rival him at all?
There are no two single factions. There are multiple small factions. Hun Sen is actually the only one dominating. There are different people who want to be the number two or want more influence. What the CPP have today is what they need to keep them united and not have any chance of a split. If there was a challenge I think the most dangerous would come from the military. The military marriage with the tycoons – between money and guns – is the worst thing that Hun Sen could have created for himself. If there’s to be any risk of a coup, that’s the combination you need: a lot of money and business interests that need to be protected that you would risk going all out to protect. It’s not about ideology in Cambodia, it’s about business interests. However, I don’t believe there’s any real danger to Hun Sen’s power now.
Finally, what’s going to happen to all the billboards that at the moment feature Chea Sim with Heng Samrin and Hun Sen?
I think they will be pulled down, not quickly or immediately but they will come down. If you look at all the new ones, they’re all Hun Sen alone. Even the ones from the 2013 elections. I would say they would soon replace them all with billboards featuring Hun Sen as sole figure in the CPP.
Interview edited for length and clarity.