In April 2010, Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly threatened to put the Agriculture Ministry’s new Forestry Administration chief, Chheng Kim Sun, behind bars if he failed to curb the country’s rampant illegal logging trade.
“This time Ty Sokhun can go free and walk away,” the prime minister said of the man he had just booted from the post after a lengthy run. “But if your turn comes,” he told Mr. Kim Sun, “it will be prison.”
Seven years on, reports of illegal logging by NGOs and community groups are about as common as they were then. The military police have since been put in charge of cracking down on an illegal logging trade even the government admits had gotten out of hand. And traffickers continue to flood Vietnam with timber despite a year-old ban on exports.
Yet at a handover ceremony in Phnom Penh this afternoon, Mr. Kim Sun will be gently pushed out of the job and, like his predecessor, promoted to undersecretary of state.
The Council of Ministers approved his transfer on Friday and named one of Mr. Kim Sun’s deputies, Ung Sam Ath, to take his place.
Contacted on Sunday, Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon said the outgoing director had done a “good job” but also accused him of slacking.
“We removed Mr. Kim Sun because the government kept him working for a long time but he has not improved his leadership, so we should provide an opportunity for his deputy to do the job,” he said.
“I saw that Mr. Kim Sun was tired in his work on forestry affairs, so we have to replace him in order to stop forest crime,” Mr. Sakhon said.
“I have noticed that our Forestry Administration officials are not concerned about their work and people take the opportunity to commit crime. That’s why the government created an illegal logging task force to help us stop the crime.”
The minister said Mr. Kim Sun was reluctant to step aside at first but eventually relented. He declined to comment on why, despite his admittedly poor performance, he was being promoted and not jailed, as Mr. Hun Sen had warned.
“I don’t want to comment on the past,” he said.
For his part, Mr. Kim Sun said he was being rewarded for a job well done.
“I think my removal is not because of any faults with my leadership. The government has offered me a new job and new duties because they want me to work in a big position,” he said.
Conservation and rights groups were doubtful from the start that Mr. Kim Sun had been handed the reins of the Forestry Administration to change things. His predecessor, they noted, was being promoted after all and has since gone from undersecretary to secretary of state, despite damning evidence from the U.S. anti-corruption group Global Witness in 2007 of his role in a sprawling government racket fueling the country’s illegal logging trade.
Marcus Hardtke, a longtime conservationist in Cambodia, said Mr. Kim Sun had been heading the Agriculture Ministry’s forest management office during Mr. Sokhun’s time at the Forestry Administration and was not a key player.
If there was anything surprising about Mr. Kim Sun’s turn in the director’s chair, he said, it was the fact that he lasted this long.
“He always came across more like a technician,” Mr. Hardtke said. “So many people were surprised when he was chosen to replace [Mr. Sokhun] and thought this would just be a temporary assignment for him. Some even considered him just a figurehead. In that sense, he lasted longer in that post than most expected.”
Mr. Hardtke said the government’s decision to finally replace Mr. Kim Sun may have grown out of the high-profile anti-logging campaign it put the military police in charge of early last year, or the broader shake-up it started a few months later when it handed much of the Forestry Administration’s work over to the Environment Ministry.
Pen Bonnar, senior investigator for land rights and natural resources for local NGO Adhoc, dismissed Mr. Kim Sun’s departure as another sleight of hand.
“The prime minister has to show the people that he reforms, but I think it’s not strong reform because he changes the director only,” he said. “If they change two or three or 1,000 [times], it [doesn’t] matter.”
Mr. Bonnar said little will change until the government actually starts jailing the top officials and timber barons widely believed to be greasing and driving the country’s illegal logging trade. But he sees no chance of that happening so long as those officials and traders stay protected.
“Corruption is the system,” he said.