Eng Bunheang, the much-criticized governor of Mondolkiri province, will be replaced by his deputy today in a ceremony presided over by Interior Minister Sar Kheng, according to officials.
While the government maintains that Mr. Bunheang is only being replaced because he has reached retirement age—he is 60—-activists and rights workers suspect his removal is related to discontent he has created among indigenous communities and his failure to curb rampant illegal logging in the eastern province.
Mr. Bunheang, a CPP stalwart and former deputy governor, was appointed governor of the province in 2013. Now, less than three years later, he will be replaced by his own deputy, Svay Sam Eang, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak.
“His age requires him to be retired,” he said. “Mr. Bunheang will be sent to work at the Interior Ministry, but the upper level has not yet appointed him to a specific position.”
Asked to explain why Mr. Bunheang was too old to lead the provincial government but still able to serve the state, General Sopheak said only that such a transfer was “natural.”
Eang Mengly, a provincial investigator for rights group Adhoc, said the move appeared to be anything but.
“We don’t know the real reason for his removal,” Mr. Mengly said. “But last year, the communities filed complaints to the Interior Ministry and the National Assembly, as well as the Council of Ministers, requesting the removal of the governor because they were angry that he revoked freedoms and violated human rights.”
In October, some 900 members of 17 ethnic Bunong communities in Mondolkiri thumb-printed a petition calling for Mr. Bunheang to be ousted and sent it to the Interior Ministry. The document accused the governor of preventing the communities from marching on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples and turning a blind eye to their many land disputes. The ministry responded by asking the governor to explain his actions.
Other appeals sent to the government conveyed the communities’ frustration that Mr. Bunheang had seemingly done nothing to prevent the illegal logging that has been devastating the forests on which the groups depend, according to Mr. Mengly.
Kroeung Tola, a representative of Mondolkiri’s many Bunong communities, said he was convinced that Mr. Bunheang was being replaced as a result of the groups’ activism, in particular their threat to defect from the CPP in upcoming elections, having been loyal supporters of the ruling party in previous polls.
“Our people voted in order to help the governor. But in the end, the governor mistreated the people,” he said. “I think the removal of the provincial governor occurred because our minority people threatened to not vote for the CPP if the government did not remove the governor.”
Neither Mr. Bunheang nor his replacement, Mr. Sam Eang, could be reached Wednesday.