Chea Sim was only president of the ruling party in Cambodia, yet he was remembered last week in a ceremony befitting a head of state following his death at 82. The day of the funeral, June 19, was declared a national holiday; however, it was not strictly observed.
There were pomp, circumstance and elaborate decoration at his cremation in a park in the center of Phnom Penh.
Unfortunately, I missed it, thanks to a friend who caused me to delay getting there. There was that and my confidence in a newspaper story indicating the cremation would occur at midday. By the time I arrived, before 11 a.m., a largely conscripted crowd, the size of which must have disappointed the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), already had left.
But I did see the shadow of the the king and a waving queen mother through tinted windows of their departing car in a motorcade that caused a police official to prevent me from crossing a street. And I did read an excellent account of what transpired, most of which would have been beyond my limited fluency with the language.
Lest my time having been entirely wasted, I made the decision to squeeze lemonade from the lemon that confronts me by taking photographs of what was left of the event as it began to unwind.
It must be said that Chea Sim was hardly a beloved figure in his country, having been responsible for incomprehensible atrocities during the Khmer Rouge years of genocide in the mid-70s.
His position as head of the CPP illustrates at least three points: 1. That genocide, which wiped out a quarter of the population, left this nation with a scandalously thin bench of educated and capable leaders; 2. That numerous former members of the Khmer Rouge populate the government and otherwise live unaffected and apparently unashamed of their past; 3. That a country that declares Buddhism as its national religion possesses an underlying belief in karma, whether good or bad.
It occurs to me that elevating and celebrating individuals on the wrong side of genocide is strange in a world where Nazi hunters continue to search for and cause the extradition of elderly man so as to hold them accountable for their roles in the Holocaust. Here, all is forgiven, at least superficially.
I missed the crocodile tears shed by Prime Minister Hun Sen — himself a former Khmer Rouge stalwart, who received all but one vote out of more than 500 cast in secret balloting with no other option offered to succeed Chea Sim on the day after the cremation. To my mind, that amounts to unseemly haste in a country where “unseemly” pales in contrast to unbridled corruption; he was, after all, merely the head of a powerful political party, not the prime minister.
However, I did arrive at the ceremony in time to see wisps of smoke from Chea Sim’s cremation and the orderly withdrawal from the park of the unfortunate military personnel of both the highest and lowest ranks weathering withering heat. Perhaps you’ll be able to detect some of the smoke in the photo above. (I do like the irony of burning and hell when it comes to cremation, with which I hope to leave the earth, but that’s for another day.)
In addition to sweltering military officers and their underlings, I noticed a plentitude of squads of heavily armed police collected in groups with nothing more to do than direct traffic on streets that had been blocked to anyone but invited guests. Among those guests were ambassadors from a number of countries; I noticed a car carrying the one from Japan and know that the U.S. ambassador also attended.
I hope the photos at least entertain you even though my impressions of the actual ceremony will have to elude both you and me.