Ouk Vithun, the secretary of state for the Justice Ministry, said Tuesday that if routine government procedure had been followed, he would have been appointed acting justice minister during Chem Snguon’s absence.
Instead, the two prime ministers named Sok An, co-Minister of the Council of Ministers, to replace the ill Chem Snguon, who was in France last month.
“Normally, the secretary of state takes over responsibilities of the minister,” said Ouk Vithun, a Funcinpec appointee who fled shortly after factional fighting broke out in July. “Officially, I am still the secretary of state. I never officially declared [a resignation], I have never written such a letter to the two prime ministers.”
However, Ouk Vithun, who returned to Phnom Penh in late March for several days and then again May 1, did not say he disagreed with the decision to appoint Sok An as acting minister, admitting he has not been to his office since returning.
“I cannot decide if it is legal,” said Ouk Vithun.
In at least three recent instances, secretaries of states have assumed the duties of ministers who have left the country.
When Minister of Rural Development Hong Sun Huot, Public Works and Transport Minister Ing Kieth, and Education Minister Tol Lah left the country following July’s fighting, their secretaries of state replaced them as leaders of ministries, officials said Tuesday.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Sunday that Sok An was appointed to fill Chem Snguon’s shoes because Ouk Vithun “was not working.”
On Tuesday, the government spokesman’s office defended the appointment as the right of the prime ministers and as in accordance with “routine procedure” of the government.
Hor Sothuon, director of the press department at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, noted there is a “gentleman’s agreement” that the duties of absent ministers are assumed by members of their own political parties. “This is what happened in the case of HE Chem Snguon,” he said, explaining why Sok An was named interim minister of justice. Both are influential CPP members.
Hor Sothuon, however, said Funcinpec did not have enough qualified people remaining in Cambodia to fill the roles of their ministers who fled, so the government allowed secretaries of state to manage the ministries.
Yim Chhay Li led the Rural Development Ministry, Tram Iv Tek became acting minister for Public Works and Transport and Kea Sahorn took over Education.