Thousands of Cambodians lined the streets of Phnom Penh on Friday to mark the lavish funeral of Chea Sim, a former Khmer Rouge official who became a key figure in the country’s ruling political party.
Chea Sim, who died on June 8 at the age of 82, was a local party secretary in the regime that was responsible for the deaths of up to 2 million people during its rule from 1975 to 1979.
Like Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was a mid-ranking cadre in the Khmer Rouge, he defected from the regime to join a Vietnamese-backed front to oust it, with both men becoming top political figures in the kingdom’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Hun Sen gave a eulogy at the funeral on Friday, which was attended by dignitaries including Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni and several foreign diplomats.
“In his historic mission for national salvation... [Chea Sim helped] liberate the nation from Pol Pot’s genocidal regime,” Hun Sen said, referring to the overthrow of the former Khmer Rouge leader also known as “Brother No. 1.”
It “is the loss of a great leader for the nation, people and the CPP,” he said.
About 40,000 people, including students and government officials dressed in black and white mourning clothes, gathered to watch the elaborate procession in the capital’s city center, according to Phnom Penh City Hall.
Authorities had granted a holiday for the attending civil servants and students with many of the crowd ferried to the capital by trucks from the outskirts of the city for the funeral shown live on television.
Onlookers watched as the coffin carrying Chea Sim, draped with the Cambodian flag, was driven from his home atop a golden dragon float to a specially built crematorium near the Royal Palace.
After the speeches and religious rites led by chanting Buddhist monks, King Sihamoni lit the pyre to cremate the body of Chea Sim.
The former CPP president, who died after suffering from a variety of chronic illnesses including diabetes, was a key figure in Cambodian politics, becoming leader of the party in 1991 and also president of the Cambodian Senate in 1999.
However he was also a divisive figure internationally with US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) accusing Chea Sim of “serious international crimes, including possible charges of genocide and other crimes against humanity” during his time as a Khmer Rouge official.
Up to 2 million people were executed or died from starvation, overwork or torture during the brutal era.
HRW’s criticism, renewed a day after Chea Sim’s death, has outraged Cambodian officials, with the government claiming it was “pure distortion without conscience and lack of respect” during the mourning period.
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