Escorted by two pickup trucks filled with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguards, Chea Sophara quietly departed Phnom Penh International Airport on Thursday evening, for what the former city governor said would be a medical checkup in France.
Several men and women cried among some 60 friends and former colleagues from City Hall who went to the airport to see him off.
Hun Sen’s bodyguards prevented reporters from approaching the former governor, who could be out of the country for more than a month, a source close to Chea Sophara said.
Also on Thursday, Hun Sen made his first public statement on the controversial removal of Chea Sophara. The premier denied that Phnom Penh’s former governor was ever his rival for prime minister. He also said that naming the popular city official to be ambassador to Burma was not a form of punishment.
Hun Sen did not offer any further explanation for Chea Sophara’s surprise re-assignment, other than to say it was within the prime minister’s power to “promote and demote.”
“Chea Sophara never wished to be prime minister instead of me or to be minister of interior replacing Sar Kheng,” Hun Sen said at a ceremony in Kompong Speu province.
“If he wants to be a prime minister, it is not yet time for him. If I finish, there would still be Say Chhum and Sar Kheng,” said Hun Sen, referring to the two officials the CPP have chosen as substitutes for the premiership.
Venting his irritation at media reports that Chea Sophara was being sanctioned by being sent to Burma, Hun Sen said that if the former governor had done something wrong, he would have been arrested and not made an ambassador.
“If Chea Sophara had fault, he would not be appointed as ambassador he would be handcuffed,” Hun Sen said, adding that in the past he had arrested officials, some of whom had held the rank of minister or secretary of state.
“It is very usual to transfer the position, because the prime minister has that power. What is the power of the prime minister? The prime minister has the power to promote and demote,” Hun Sen said.
Chea Sophara removal is widely viewed among the Cambodian public and foreign diplomats as being the first official purge as a result of the Jan 29 Thai Embassy sacking.
One government official indicated that Chea Sophara was fingered by Thai military intelligence. However, many see his removal as being a politically expedient move for Hun Sen.
In what many interpreted as a political metaphor for his continued tenure as prime minister, Hun Sen said on Thursday that many people wanted him to stay prime minister until old age.
“Some people suggest for me to stay, and they bless me until I am 100 years-old, but I wish only 90 years-old,” he said.
Since his removal on Tuesday, Chea Sophara has refused to comment on his new post except to say that he was unsure as to when he would depart for Burma as his appointment still needs to be approved by the government in Rangoon.
Despite government claims that his removal was an administrative change, several Phnom Penh residents called Chea Sophara’s removal a “deportation” to Burma, while former staff at Municipal Hall said it would be inconceivable to believe that the former governor is happy leaving Cambodia.
Diplomats and government officials also characterized the Burma posting as both a “punishment” and a “banishment.”
According to one government official, Cambodian embassies around the world are ranked as either “A” or “B” grade diplomatic missions for the civil servants who work there.
Cambodia’s embassies in capitals such as Washington, Paris and Tokyo are “A” grade postings, while many embassies in the region are “B” grade postings, which means fewer perks in terms of accommodation and salary, according to the official.
While Chea Sophara may be unhappy with his modest posting, refusing to take up such an appointment is all but impossible, the government official said.
“[Chea Sophara] has to obey. It’s not possible to disobey a royal order,” the official said, noting that the royal decree signed by King Norodom Sihanouk means a refusal to follow the decree indicates a refusal to follow the King’s wishes.
“Why the ambassador to Burma? Maybe to America. But not Burma. For [Chea Sophara’s] rank, this is a demotion,” a CPP member, who is a friend of Chea Sophara, said on Wednesday.
The posting should normally last three years, the officials said.
Chea Sophara will be replacing the current ambassador to Burma, Nhim Chandara—a brother-in-law of Hun Sen—who formerly headed Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard department and will now become undersecretary of state at the Foreign Ministry.
Events this week will probably be a bitter pill for Chea Sophara to swallow, said a diplomat, who added that despite his obvious falling out with Hun Sen’s powerful, ruling faction, the former governor’s career is far from over in the CPP.
The CPP reprimands, but never abandons their own, the diplomat said.
Hun Sen’s rehabilitation of Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun—who was fired from his post as forestry department director in 1997, but is now a minister— is a case in point, he said.
Chea Sophara must serve a period of time in Rangoon before he is eventually accepted back into the CPP fold and awarded a position equal with his popularity.
“You are never kicked out,” the diplomat said.
However, Chea Sophara’s future positions are unlikely to allow him ever to attain the high profile status, and public popularity, he cultivated while Phnom Penh governor, the diplomat said.
Chum Suonry, director of the Foreign Ministry’s press department, said on Thursday that it could take between two and four weeks before Nhim Chandara ends his official functions as ambassador and returns to Phnom Penh.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)