Former Governor’s Removal Remains Cloaked in Secrecy

Heads were destined to roll, and when the ax finally fell, some thought it was going to come down on Cambodia’s security chiefs for failing to protect Phnom Penh from the rampaging teen­agers on Jan 29 last year.

A cull of top brass and middle-ranking officials was rumored. And a respected Sing­a­porean news­paper, quoting an unnamed official, claimed Cambo­dia’s omnipotent director-general of National Police, Hok Lundy, was scheduled for sacrifice over the apparent security bundle that allowed a foreign embassy to burn.

“They should have no excuse,” former Thai ambassador Chatch­awed Chartsuwan was quoted in Thai newspapers, shortly after fleeing the flames of Phnom Penh on a military evacuation plane.

“I called everyone I know in the Cambodian Foreign Ministry, the police, the defense ministry, but they did not turn up soon enough,” the ambassador said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen called the daring, unchecked teenage mobs “extremists” while co-De­fense Minister Tea Banh and co-Interior Minister Sar Kheng said their forces were overwhelmed.

Phnom Penh’s then-governor, Chea Sophara, one of the city’s most powerful people for several years, was in Preah Vihear pro­vince on the day of the riots.

A staunch nationalist, Chea Sophara was a rising star inside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP who, probably uniquely, en­joyed popularity across traditional partisan boundaries.

Particularly outspoken on the issue of Cambodia’s tussle with Thailand over the Preah Vihear temple, Chea Sophara had made it a personal project to build a road to the mountaintop temple. As the embassy was torched, Chea So­phara was driving the bumpy road back to Phnom Penh.

It would be Chea Sophara’s last trip to Preah Vihear as governor of Phnom Penh.

On Feb 11, at a hastily arranged ceremony behind closed and heavily guarded doors at the Interior Ministry, Chea Sophara was re­moved and officially notified of his new position as Cam­bodia’s next ambassador to Burma.

Though Chea Sophara wore a wide fixed smile throughout the ceremony, the sacking was a crushing blow for a man many tipped as a future prime minister.

“Write whatever you want. I won’t give you any comment,” Chea Sophara told reporters.

A year later, Chea Sophara main­­­tains his silence. Contacted this week, he preferred not to comment.

Chea Sophara’s removal was never officially linked to the riots, but even Thai Prime Minister Thak­sin Shinawatra said upon hearing the news that he ex­pected “several important position changes.”

Hun Sen denied his removal of Chea Sophara was a punishment.

But among many public, political and foreign officials, it was long rumored that the prime minister was uncomfortable with the governor’s popularity.

Chea Sophara never went to Burma. He was later made an ad­viser to Hun Sen, but it is not known in what field he advises the premier.




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