PHNOM PENH — Chea Sim, a key Cambodian political figure after the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and an ally of the current leader, died on Monday, an official said.
He was 82 and had high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic ailments. His death was confirmed by the head of his bodyguard unit, Yim Leang, who did not give the cause of death.
Chea Sim was president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party since it was formed in 1991, and was president of the Senate since 1999. He became a revolutionary in the 1950s and like Prime Minister Hun Sen was a member of the communist Khmer Rouge when it seized power in 1975 after a civil war. Both men fled the group to join a resistance faction groomed by neighboring Vietnam, which installed them as Cambodia’s new leaders after ousting the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Chea Sim’s image is seen on billboards around the country promoting the ruling party, but his actual power over the past decade was considered negligible, as Hun Sen consolidated his own power base. In April, when Chea Sim’s health was deteriorating, Hun Sen—two decades younger—said that he would take over as party leader when Chea Sim passed away.
The two men were political allies but also rivals, and in the 1990s Chea Sim led a ruling party faction that tentatively challenged Hun Sen’s grip on power. But Hun Sen, one of Southeast Asia’s most wily and ruthless politicians, kept Chea Sim at bay, outmaneuvering him as he did opposition politicians and even the late King Norodom Sihanouk.
An open break came in 2004, when they disagreed over changing the constitution to allow an opposition party to join the Cambodian People’s Party in a coalition government. When Chea Sim as acting head of state refused to sign off on the change, Hun Sen pushed it through by forcing Chea Sim to temporarily leave the country. The show of power marked the decline of Chea Sim’s faction.
Born Nov. 15, 1932, to a peasant family in eastern Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province, Chea Sim joined the revolutionary movement against colonial France in the early 1950s, and was a cadre of the communist Khmer Rouge by the time it ousted a pro-American government in 1975. His timely defection to the Vietnam-based anti-Khmer Rouge movement led to positions in the new Vietnamese-sponsored party and government that Hanoi installed after invading Cambodia and ousting the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
Chea Sim was a senior figure by the time negotiations took place that resulted in the 1991 Paris Peace Accord, which brokered a deal supposed to end three decades of civil war and paved the way for UN-organized elections in 1993. Although a royalist party topped the polls, Hun Sen insisted that it share power with his Cambodian People’s Party, and four years later seized sole power for his party.
Long Demanche, spokesman for Phnom Penh City Hall, said it had been instructed to organize a cremation ceremony at a park near the Royal Palace, with the ceremony to be treated as one for a head of state due to Chea Sim’s position as Senate president. He said no date had been set for the ceremony.