In a surprise move that has shocked officials, foreign diplomats and Phnom Penh residents, the city’s most powerful official, Governor Chea Sophara, was removed from his post late Monday night, a sacking that has been linked to the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots.
Chea Sophara—who for almost a decade has held the position of first deputy governor and then governor of Phnom Penh—was informed of his removal by Prime Minister Hun Sen during a telephone call Monday night.
“I would prefer not to comment about this,” a somber Chea Sophara said on Tuesday morning, adding he had not yet received official written notification of his removal.
The reason for Chea Sophara’s sacking has not been revealed, but political supporters and members of the opposition party claim the popular governor and rising CPP star has become an expedient, political scapegoat for recent anti-Thai riots.
Chea Sophara’s hastily organized removal ceremony took place behind closed doors in a heavily guarded meeting hall at the Interior Ministry on Tuesday afternoon.
At the ceremony—which participants had to pass through a metal detector to attend—Chea Sophara was officially notified of his new position as the next Cambodian ambassador to Burma.
He was replaced by Kep Chuktema, governor of Takeo province and the former governor of Ratanakkiri province.
Fluent in several languages and holder of degrees in medicine and politics, Kep Chuktema is considered one of the few intellectuals among the ruling CPP, and is close to co-Interior Minister Sar Kheng.
“You can just take my picture and write what ever you want. I won’t give you any comment,” Chea Sophara told a throng of reporters as he swiftly left the ceremony.
His controversial sacking follows a week of rumor and high-level hints that senior Cambodian officials would be targeted over the recent razing of the Thai Embassy and Thai-owned businesses.
Chea Sophara—who has built his reputation on improving security and beautifying Phnom Penh—was in Preah Vihear province during the night of mob violence.
However, a senior police official—and long-standing rival of Chea Sophara—is known to have laid blame for the riots on the governor.
The finger was further pointed, though indirectly, at Chea Sophara by the English-language Thai newspaper The Nation which quoted unnamed Thai security sources as saying they had focused their riot investigation on a Phnom Penh city official suspected of “helping stir anger against Thailand.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said on Tuesday the Chea Sophara was not “removed,” but “moved.”
“We need a good ambassador in Burma,” he said.
However, Agence France-Presse quoted Khieu Kanharith on Tuesday as saying, “The government changed the position of a few officials after Thai intelligence accused some high-ranking Cambodian government officials of being behind the riots.”
Supporters and former staff of Chea Sophara declined on Tuesday to comment about his removal.
However, members of the Sam Rainsy Party branded Chea Sophara’s firing a political maneuver by Hun Sen who has been at logger heads with the popular city official for some years.
“The removal of Chea Sophara is the internal conflict of the CPP. Hun Sen felt jealous of Chea Sophara’s popularity and some rumors that [Chea Sophara] could be a candidate for prime minister,” said opposition Parliamentarian Eng Chhay Eang.
In recent years, Chea Sophara has been increasingly touted as a potential rival to Hun Sen’s leadership of the CPP.
While senior CPP sources admit Chea Sophara is popular and a rising star, his relatively low position inside the CPP’s bureaucratic party structure excludes him from being a potential challenger to Hun Sen.
However, the newspaper reports of Chea Sophara being a future contender for premier and his rising profile over the past several years as Phnom Penh governor had seriously soured relations with Hun Sen, CPP officials said.
Phnom Penh’s new governor Kep Chuktema—a close friend of Chea Sophara—said he was informed of his appointment at 7:30 am on Tuesday morning by Sar Kheng.
“It’s the highest privilege for me, but I also know that with such responsibility I have to strongly prepare the works ahead to continue the work of His Excellency Chea Sophara,” Kep Chuktema said.
Staff at the municipality’s offices were busy removing Chea Sophara’s belonging from his former office Tuesday morning. Some staff said they had received most of their information on the removal from national radio.
“He was too active as governor,” an official at the municipality said. Fearing a further purge by the government of officials close to Chea Sophara, the official was unwilling to disclose his name.
“Why was the [removal] signature done at night? I am surprised and disappointed. Many people have already called me. They are disappointed too…. It is a serious loss,” the official said.
The officials said Chea Sophara is unlikely to be happy about his new appointment to Burma because “he will be far from his people.”
Klaing Huot, governor of Tuol Kok district and a Funcinpec member, said on Tuesday he would not attend Chea Sophara’s removal ceremony out of respect for the former governor.
“His work in the city was not based on party affiliation, but whatever was good for the city,” Klaing Huot said.
Funcinpec lawmaker Princess Norodom Vacheara lauded Chea Sophara’s accomplishments on Tuesday and said the lightning removal was surprising and that many people must take responsibility for the riots.
“It is not [Chea Sophara’s] responsibility alone. There are many more people involved,” Princess Vacheara said.
Western diplomats said on Tuesday that Chea Sophara’s removal—if related to the anti-Thai riots—does not explain why police and security officials appeared reluctant to end the riots.
Chea Sophara was not responsible for the police on the night of the riots, said one diplomat. A second diplomat said that Thailand has demanded a full investigation of the riots, and it remains to be seen if further removals will target individuals outside the municipal hierarchy.
“He was seen as someone who gets things done and maybe in the end that cost him,” a third Western diplomat said.
The diplomat said Chea Sophara might have failed to realize that—despite rarely deviating from Hun Sen’s line in public—“his fortunes weren’t necessarily tied to Hun Sen’s.”
The diplomat characterized Hun Sen’s order as a political masterstroke that both salvages his reputation with the Thais and removes one of the few CPP members who could threaten his dominance.
Foreign Minister Hor Namhong—speaking to reporters in Singapore on Tuesday—dismissed allegations that Hun Sen’s comments blasting Suvanant Kongying helped trigger the riots.
Hor Namhong also said the police did not intervene because they misinterpreted the demonstrations as peaceful, The Associated Press reported.
“Cambodia is a very free country…. We have so many demonstrations, therefore, they never thought the demonstrations would turn to violence,” Hor Namhong said, according to AP.
(Reporting by Kevin Doyle, Phann Ana, Seth Meixner and Lor Chandara)