A senior Cambodian official has acknowledged the potential reshuffling of ministers and others in the top levels of government, backing months of speculation that there could be a significant shift in the leadership ranks.
“We are testing the waters,” said the senior government official, explaining that informal conversations have begun about possible ministerial or cabinet-level switches.
“Nothing is definite. I do not know specifics. We will see how people will react—sometimes people are upset by changes,” the official said.
Prince Norodom Ranariddh said earlier this week that new secretary of state appointments—meant to fill gaps left by deaths or illness—will be announced as the first order of business when the National Assembly’s next session starts in late May. But many doubt more significant changes are imminent.
“That’s really the only thing on the table right now—the replacements only, the lateral moves,” said one Asian diplomatic source.
One minister, who didn’t want to be named, pointed out that the Cambodian government is too busy with other big issues, for example the Khmer Rouge trial, to deal immediately with what he described as a combination of inter-party sniping and practical personnel changes.
For months there has been quiet discussion of moves within the government—punctuated periodically by authoritatively written though often unsourced articles in the Khmer-language press and the English-language newspaper, The Vision.
Perhaps the most dramatic of these rumored moves is the removal of Finance Minister Keat Chhon (CPP) and Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong (CPP).
There is also the speculated creation of two more deputy prime minister positions—reportedly to be filled by Cabinet Minister Sok An (CPP) and Health Minister Hong Sun Huot (Fun)—that has allegedly upset anti-Hun Sen factions within the CPP. Currently, the government has two deputy prime ministers: Education Minister Tol Lah (Fun) and co-Interior Minister Sar Kheng (CPP).
A source close to Sar Kheng said Wednesday, however, he had not heard of the creation of two additional deputy prime minister positions and no one would confirm that these promotions are likely.
Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha also cast doubt Wednesday on shifts in high government positions, saying that switch of officials is only likely in the government’s lower levels.
Only Secretary of State for the Inspection Ministry Khau Meng Hean’s (Fun) appointment to the Interior Ministry, where he will take the secretary of state position formerly occupied by Than Sina (Fun), has been confirmed by both himself and several other Funcinpec officials, including Information Minister Lu Laysreng. Than Sina became Phnom Penh’s first deputy governor in January as part of an agreement between CPP and Funcinpec leaders.
Almost all government and foreign officials interviewed recently dismissed talk of reshuffling in the top levels as “speculation.”
“Something seems to be in motion but when you ask [officials] they are always slippery about the question [of reshuffling],” said one Asian diplomat.
But some Western diplomatic sources, while acknowledging a lack of solid evidence pointing to a reshuffle, did say there appears to be some truth to the reports.
“The sheer frequency of the rumors, spread over so many months and being so consistent may show there has been some discussion,” the source said.
Several sources interviewed pointed to dissatisfaction with certain government officials as the possible motive for a reshuffling, with one Asian diplomatic official describing some ministers as “dead wood” that need to be cleared for successful reform to take place.
Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, agreed that some ministers were likely to be replaced, saying “one year has elapsed since several appointments, and nothing much has changed.”
But an Asian diplomatic official said he thought Prime Minister Hun Sen is likely to let the current ministers continue in their roles for at least another year before looking at their progress, saying it didn’t make any sense to move ministers right now.
Other government and diplomatic officials say the possible reshuffle may just be a natural evolution of this developing country’s government, which has only recently regained some stability after decades of turmoil.
Both parties in the coalition government—CPP and Funcinpec—may be trying to balance their power as the government moves from a militaristic state to one centered on civil issues, they said.
“There’s a concentration of Funcinpec representation presently on the social welfare side of things,” a Western diplomat said, explaining that there may be a push by the CPP to gain more of a foothold in these increasingly important areas.