Prime Minister Hun Sen on Sunday defended his decision to return an unlicensed ambulance to ABC radio and remove the municipal health director who ordered its seizure, arguing that the ambulance was used for humanitarian purposes and the official had overstepped his authority.
Mr. Hun Sen’s salvo, posted to his Facebook page, marked his latest involvement in the case involving the juice-peddling ambulance, its owner, an outspoken media mogul nicknamed “Aja A,” and a surprise on-air telephone call.
The incident began on Thursday morning, when Phnom Penh health officials seized the ambulance in Tuol Kok district. Municipal health department director Sok Sokun said the vehicle lacked the necessary licensing, medical equipment and personnel to operate as an ambulance, and had been used to distribute the station’s branded fruit juices.
Mr. Sokun was particularly incensed after he said ABC’s owner, Seng Bunveng—also known as “Aja A”—took to the airwaves and called health officials “beasts” in the wake of the ambulance seizure.
Though Mr. Sokun threatened to sue Mr. Bunveng for the comments, the radio station said on its Facebook page and broadcasts that the ambulance had been used for humanitarian purposes and continued to criticize health officials. Its fans also took their complaints to Facebook.
Responding to the outcry, the prime minister called in directly to the radio station on Saturday to apologize for the impounded vehicle, announce that Mr. Sokun would be removed from his position, and offer two new ambulances to the station.
“I would like to apologize about the implementation [of the law] from some officials who made mistakes related to the humanitarian work of ABC radio,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “But today I solved this issue through the comments from nephews or people who benefited from the ABC ambulance.”
“I would like to provide two more vehicles to help the people,” Mr. Hun Sen said, to a chorus of cheers from ABC staff.
“We must remove him from his position in order to address the public’s opinion,” the prime minister said of Mr. Sokun.
Deputy municipal governor Khuong Sreng said on Sunday that the impounded ambulance had been returned to ABC on Saturday, and confirmed that the radio station and Mr. Hun Sen’s office were coordinating the purchase of the two new ambulances.
However, in response to mounting social media criticism arguing that the intervention came too late and risked causing lower-level officials to avoid enforcing laws, Mr. Hun Sen took to Facebook on Sunday to elaborate on his logic.
The prime minister said that he waited to act because he hoped local authorities would resolve the dispute themselves, but mounting online backlash from the station’s fans had forced his hand.
“One party is a state institution and another party is a broadcasting institution that contributes a lot by broadcasting fair hot news as well as helping the poor,” Mr. Hun Sen said, adding that he had ordered the radio station’s existing and new vehicles to be granted licenses to “continue helping the poor free of charge.”
Mr. Hun Sen went on to justify Mr. Sokun’s removal, saying he should have coordinated his actions with prosecutors.
“Enforcement of the law is not wrong, but [this case] has a procedural flaw,” the prime minister wrote. “The director of the health department is really a judicial police officer, but if he acts in this role related to an offense, he has to report and ask for direction and coordination from prosecutors in accordance with existing procedure.”
Mr. Sokun had failed to follow that procedure, but nonetheless would not be fired outright, Mr. Hun Sen said.
“The removal of the director of the department does not mean we abandon him. We can appoint him to any appropriate post in upcoming time at national level as well as national lower level,” he wrote.
Mr. Sokun did not respond to multiple requests for comment. His deputy Ngy Meanheng said he did not dare speak on the issue.
“I am concerned that if I say something wrong, I will be in trouble,” he said, before hanging up on a reporter.
ABC employee Chhel Sovannara described Mr. Hun Sen’s actions as a “big honor.” He acknowledged that the impounded ambulance had been used to transport the company’s branded juice, but said that the products were not illegal and that the vehicle had also been used to transport over 200 corpses for poor families.
“After we receive this vehicle we never transported any illegal goods,” Mr. Sovannara said. “We tried to explain that our vehicle is for transporting corpses” and therefore did not require a medical license, he added.
In recent months, the prime minister has regularly responded to Facebook outcries with policy changes on issues such as the new Traffic Law. Political analyst Ou Virak said the practice undermined the authority of lawmakers.
“If you keep on governing [based] on the mood of the moment, it’s going to be problematic,” Mr. Virak said.
“If there’s any problem of the law, Hun Sen needs to go back to the National Assembly.”
Mr. Virak said that officials watching the case were likely to conclude that the safest action was none at all.
“I think officials will keep on guessing which laws will be enforced and which laws will not be,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Ben Paviour and Kim Chan)