Deputy Prime Minister Sok An has a stunning portfolio of positions within the CPP government.
On Monday, CPP lawmakers once again appointed Mr. An as the Cabinet Minister for Prime Minister Hun Sen. He is also the chairman of the state-controlled Cambodian National Petroleum Authority and the Apsara Authority, which oversees the Angkor Archaeological Park, along with posts as the chief of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, the Royal Academy and the State Investment Board of Rubber Enterprise.
But in the wake of July’s national election, a number of government bodies under the control of Mr. An have been dissolved. Adding to that, a number of CPP lawmakers from Takeo province, Mr. An’s home province, where he is in charge of the CPP’s provincial working group, have also seen their ministerial portfolios removed in the reshuffling of Mr. Hun Sen’s Cabinet.
Chan Sarun, So Khun and Mok Mareth have all been removed as ministers of agriculture, telecommunications and environment, respectively. Mr. Sarun has been appointed as one of 11 senior ministers in charge of special missions. Mr. Khun and Mr. Mareth will no longer serve in Mr. Hun Sen’s Cabinet, but will keep their seats in the National Assembly.
During a six-hour address to his Cabinet on Wednesday, Mr. Hun Sen announced that the Supreme Council on State Reform (SCSR), a body overseen by Mr. An in his capacity as Cabinet Minister, would be dissolved. The powerful SCSR was in charge of four sub-councils mediating reform in financial policy and within the judiciary, military and public administration.
The Accreditation Committee of Cambodia, another body controlled by Mr. An that oversees higher education institutions in the country, will also be dissolved, Mr. Hun Sen announced.
The powers once under the councils will either be absorbed by relevant ministries or the newly-created Ministry of Public Functions, which will be headed by Pich Bunthin, a long-time secretary of state at the State Secretariat of Public Functions. The Secretariat of Public Functions, which was also under the control of Mr. An, no longer exists due to the creation of the new ministry.
Heng Vong Bunchhat, a member of the Council for Legal and Judicial Reform—one of the four sub-councils within the SCSR—said that he had heard that the council would be dissolved, with its responsibilities being placed under the oversight of Justice Minister An Vong Vathana, though it was not yet official.
“So far, [I] haven’t seen official documents for dissolution,” Mr. Bunchhat said, adding that the Council of Jurists, another body controlled by Mr. An, would remain intact.
With a plethora of responsibilities, Mr. An has encountered several challenges in his stewardship of some of the government’s most important bodies.
The National Petroleum Authority, which was created in 1998 as a separate body from the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy, has yet to successfully lead a company through to extraction process despite promises from Mr. An in July 2010 that oil would be flowing in Cambodia by the end of 2012.
Work at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, where Mr. Sok An has taken the lead on behalf of the government as the chairman of a taskforce, has been slowed by two separate labor strikes of national staff this year due to the government’s failure to meet its financial obligations to the court.
The Apsara Authority, of which Mr. An is chairman, controls Cambodia’s most lucrative tourist destination, but it has recently seen its offices and thousands of staff moved 16 km outside of Siem Reap City this month after it swapped complexes with the Siem Reap municipality, which had its former offices sold off in a controversial government land swap in 2010.
In March, Mr. Hun Sen overturned a letter Mr. An had signed allowing Leo Beer founder Cheam Phen to take more than 350 hectares of contested land in Preah Sihanouk province.
Changes made to Mr. Hun Sen’s Cabinet should not be viewed as demotions, said CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap, who has been reappointed as the head of the National Assembly’s banking and finance committee.
“Being a lawmaker doesn’t mean they are less valuable than being ministers of ministries,” he said of the ministers from Takeo who had lost their positions. Mr. Yeap also said that the decision to dissolve Mr. An’s SCSR was in line with the government’s plan for deep reforms in the judiciary.
“It is a part of deep reforms because Samdech Hun Sen decided that they can be dissolved because every ministry already has their own legal teams,” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen said in his marathon six-hour speech on Wednesday that it was crucial to the passage of three long-awaited laws on judicial reform that their handling be passed from the SCSR to the Justice Ministry.
“Now the only way [to pass these laws] is to dissolve the Supreme Council of State Reform and fully hand over the affairs of legal and judicial reform to the justice minister,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, where Mr. An’s office is located, could not be contacted to comment on the reshuffle.
Independent political analyst Kem Ley said that reduction of Mr. An’s power within government was likely part of an internal reform strategy by the prime minister to appease other senior members of his party, which suffered a significant blow to its popularity, and share of the National Assembly, in the national election.
“Sok An has many, many positions under the Council of Ministers, and high-ranking officials complain about that. This is another type of reform, cutting power from people” and giving it others in the party, he said.
Long Panhavuth, an officer with the Cambodian Justice Initiative, said that while he did not know the reasoning behind the shift of power over judicial reform, he doubted that it was done to facilitate reform.
“The government dissolving the council of its authority does not mean that the government has the political will to reform the judicial system. Is it a split in the government? I have no idea, I cannot comment on that…but any reform that is not for the sake of abuse of power and institutions would be welcome,” he said.
Chan Soveth, a senior investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said he was happy to see the Supreme Council disbanded as it had made little headway in actually making any of its promised reforms.
“Civil society doesn’t care whether or not this is for reform of the judiciary or if dissolving the council is meant to kill two or three birds with one stone. We will welcome the practical implementation of judicial reform that brings effectiveness to the country’s judicial system,” Mr. Soveth said.
Speaking during a ceremony at the Ministry of Education yesterday, where Hang Chuon Naron was officially made the new minister, replacing Im Sethy, Mr. An described his own career in glowing terms, describing how he has always been ahead of the competition.
Before he was forced to enroll in “the school of the Khmer Rouge,” Mr. An told the audience at the ceremony, he was a teacher at a junior high school and at the age of 22 was appointed deputy director due to his graduate degree in literature and a year spent studying law.
At the age of 30, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he said he was the youngest civil servant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When he was sent to India at 35, he became Cambodia’s youngest ambassador.
Some three decades later, Mr. An said that he and many other senior CPP officials of his generation were well into their 60s, and thus a changing of the guard had begun.
“Time flies so fast when we are concentrating on work,” Mr. An said.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)