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Chea Sim Remembered as Principled Political Broker

Supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party dance under portraits of the party leaders, from left, Chea Sim, Hun Sen and Heng Samrin, during an election campaign in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, June 27, 2013.

Chea Sim, the ruling party leader who died earlier this week in Phnom Penh, was a political dealmaker and staunch constitutionalist, officials said this week.

He was often put in charge of the country when the late King Norodom Sihanouk was away. His even-handedness will be missed, colleagues said.

In 2004, when it looked like he would refuse an apparently unconstitutional move by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to form a government in the midst of a political impasse, he was made to leave the country so that it could pass, a former member of the Constitutional Council, Son Soubert, remembers.

“At that time, whatever he did, he followed the constitution, followed the procedures of the constitution,” Son Soubert said of Chea Sim. “They forced him out of the country to allow another person to sign instead.”

He called Chea Sim, who was 82, “a hero,” whose moderate voice will be lost to the CPP. “When he was alive, he was a middle man who wouldn’t allow wrongdoing or extreme acts, like war,” Son Soubert said. “That was what I learned from working with him.”

Chea Sim also had much to teach about the Khmer Rouge, and the period of history when Cambodia was under Norodom Sihanouk, Son Soubert said. “I regret that he has passed away, and that there is no similarly mature person in the CPP. I don’t know how the party is going to be, whether it will remain the same or whether it will change. This is the question, when it comes to Chea Sim.”

Chea Sim had been a counterweight to Hun Sen’s power within the party. Now, the premier has full control of his party and his administration.

Nhiek Bun Chhay, a former resistance fighter and leader within the royalist Funcinpec party, which once rivaled the CPP, said Chea Sim helped in the fight against the Khmer Rouge and the restoration of a stable country, including the monarchy.

When Funcinpec won a national election in 1993, Chea Sim was supportive of the transition—although it ended with a power-sharing agreement with Hun Sen and ultimately the coup that put the CPP squarely in power, four years later. He also helped solve problems that occurred in elections, Nhiek Bun Chhay said. “He always mediated to reach agreements, particularly for peace, stability and development.”

His leadership was fair-minded, he didn’t discriminate against any political party, and he facilitated progress within the legislative branch, through cooperation and hard work, Nhiek Bun Chhay said. “That’s what I remember.”