Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday hit back at those who criticized his recent reshuffling of cabinet ministers for not being bold enough, accusing Cambodia’s cadre of political commentators of being “the same old faces” themselves.
The premier announced last week that eight ministries would be changing hands, but while the move was billed as a way to jump-start inefficient government bodies, several observers and opposition figures pointed out that many of the officials involved just switched places with each other while keeping their ministerial positions.
Speaking on Monday at a conference on public finance in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen criticized this attitude as shortsighted.
“I would like to say something in order to send a message to some commentators…who said that the faces are still the same,” he said. “I just send a message to you that you are also the same faces. The commentators are also the same faces. Why is it necessary to say ‘same faces?’ How can we cut our faces off if our faces are always here and you, the leaders of the opposition, have the same faces, too? Otherwise, we would have to cut all of our necks so that the faces could be replaced.”
Mr. Hun Sen went on to argue that replacing ministers regularly was not as important as ensuring that existing officials knew how to incorporate new ideas and reforms. He said Cambodia had achieved strong economic growth over the past 10 years under the leadership of many of the same officials who continue to run the government today.
“If people did not change, would economic growth have been achieved like this?” he said. “Sometimes people are old, but their ideas are new. Even though they are in their 80s, they are also youths…. Has this growth been achieved by new people, or old people with new ideas?”
Ou Virak, a political analyst who criticized the reshuffle on “old faces” grounds last week, questioned the prime minister’s logic.
“I think if he really does not care about the same faces but about the ability to work and changing ways of working, why did he reshuffle the cabinet? For example, with the agriculture minister, why not just keep him as the agriculture minister and just ask him to change the way he works?” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen first raised the threat of a reshuffle last month when he used a public speech to criticize Ouk Rabun, the agriculture minister, and Tram Iv Tek, the minister of public works and transport, calling their ministries “very slow” and giving them both an F grade for poor performance.
“Today, when I was having lunch, I ranked the ministries from A, B, C to F, and F is the Ministry of Public Works, as well as Ouk Rabun. The Ministry of Agriculture reaches rank F—very slow,” he said at the time.
However, despite the duo’s failing grades, Mr. Rabun has now been given the job of rural affairs minister, while Mr. Iv Tek will be the new telecommunications minister.
Mr. Hun Sen also revealed on Monday that he had been paying close attention to this year’s hotly contended U.S. presidential primary race, noting that the campaign was an unusual one due to the inclusion of property magnate Donald Trump, whose platform of economic populism and opposition to mass immigration has proven unexpectedly popular with many Republican voters, even as it has incurred the loathing of party elders.
“If Mr. Trump wins the election in the U.S., I don’t know what the situation will be,” he said. “Now, in the Republican party, they are coming out to block Mr. Trump from winning the election. This is the new way of Mr. Trump in the U.S.”
The premier slyly noted that Mr. Trump’s candidacy had led to an upswing in political protests in the U.S.
“The election campaign this time has problems, like blocking roads and negative talk. These are new changes for them,” he said.