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Cambodia: Factionalism in the Cambodian People’s Party

Carlyle A. Thayer , C3S Paper No.2073


We request your assessment about of politics in the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and specifically the old rivalries between the Hun Sen and Chea Sim factions of the party. Recently it was the 23rd anniversary of Chea Sim becoming CPP president. We note that Chea Sim’s advanced age and health problems have resulted in Chea Sim becoming increasingly removed from Cambodian politics. Senior CPP figures are now admitting, albeit anonymously, that he is now just “a symbol.” We request your assessment about whether his decline (due to old age and ill health) has also led to the decline of his loyalists in the party and the influence they wield.

Q1. When do you think Chea Sim’s faction ceased to pose a serious threat to Hun Sen? Some have suggested the post-2003 election crisis, when he was strong-armed to leave the country after refusing to sign the CPP-FUNCINPEC deal that required constitutional changes, paving the way for Nhek Bun Chhay to sign it instead. In previous Background Briefs you suggested after the demise of FUNCINPEC in the 2008 poll that factionalism within the CPP re-emerged, and that the death of Hok Lundy was also very significant in this regard. Is this still your assessment?

ANSWER: The events of July 2004 clearly put Hun Sen in firmer control of Cambodia than previously. These events did not eliminate factionalism but severely undercut the power and influence of the faction led by Chea Sim. 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. Hok Lundy, a key Hun Sen ally, and his armed police, frog marched Chea Sim to the Phnom Penh airport and a short exile in Bangkok. The new coalition government that followed excluded many of Chea Sim’s supporters. The events of 2004 seriously weakened Chea Sim. But his weakened factional network still remained with Sar Kheng, his brother in law, in the post of Minister of Interior. Hok Lundy, an ally of Hun Sen, passed from the scene when he died in a helicopter crash in 2008.

Q2. With the replacement of Ke Kim Yan as head of Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) soon after, do you think that Hun Sen took a major step in consolidating his power? Would you say that even though Chea Sim is now too old, that Sar Kheng still Thayer Consultancy represents this “conservative” faction and its interests? Do you think the Interior Ministry is its power base? How much influence does the “faction” really wield or is that impossible to tell? Are there still clear divisions in the security forces?

ANSWER: Hun Sen moved to consolidate his power. Ke Kim Yan was connected to Chea Sim through a marriage of their children, and his removal meant the loss of power for one of Chea Sim’s supporters. In 2004 Chea Sim was 72 years of age. He reportedly suffered a stroke in 2000. This meant that Sar Kheng was the most powerful and prominent of the Chea Sim “conservative” faction.

Q3. Do you think that internal divisions within the CPP resurfaced following the 2013 poll? And would this likely have been along the same old lines?

ANSWER: After the poor showing of the CPP in the 2013 national elections many members of party blamed Hun Sen for this debacle. This led some to question his longevity in office. They were moved to ensure their own survival. The “Chea Sim faction” may well have viewed the CPP’s poor electoral showing as an opportunity but they could not attract the support of the younger party members. Chea Sim was 81 at this time.

(Article reprinted with the permission of the author Carlyle A. Thayer, Emeritus Professor,The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra email: Carlthayer@webone.com.au)

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