As Phnom Penh woke up to a new city governor on Wednesday morning, CPP officials and ordinary people were asking questions as to why the government abruptly sacked the capital’s former top official, Chea Sophara.
From Preah Vihear province to Phsar Olympic and Phsar Thmei, Chea Sophara’s removal was still sinking in among CPP associates and city residents.
Those interviewed said Chea Sophara had done a better job than most other officials in his position, and his removal and re-posting to Burma needs to be explained.
Phnom Penh has not only lost a popular governor, the CPP has also lost a major vote grabber in the city ahead of July’s general election, they said.
“I want to know the reason why the government removed him and nominated him to a position far away from [Cambodia],” a 38-year-old vendor said at Phsar Olympic.
“The government activities means they deport him abroad. It will affect the CPP’s reputation,” the woman said.
A dozen other vendors echoed these words and also declined to be named, claiming that if the government could sack Chea Sophara, they could do anything, and it was better to remain anonymous.
“Many people, students and government officials are dealing with the riot, not Chea Sophara. It’s an injustice for Chea Sophara to be deported to Burma,” said a 26-year-old Phsar Olympic vendor.
Sentiments of shock and demands that all details regarding Chea Sophara’s removal be made public were also expressed among grassroots and top CPP officials.
“We are very disappointed because the withdrawal was not explained clearly. We do not know what is the problem. Whether [Chea Sophara] was removed because of the riots, or what. They did not say,” a well respected, senior CPP official said on condition of anonymity on Wednesday.
Sim Ka, a CPP permanent committee member, gave cautious praise to Chea Sophara’s work and said he was sorry to see him go.
“Through achievements we’ve seen, Chea Sophara has been good, though all this was done under the common leadership of government,” Sim Ka said.
Officials and others in Preah Vihear also said they were shocked by the news about Chea Sophara who has led a year-long project to open an access road to the Preah Vihear temple.
“People are discussing about this a lot. They feel sorrow about the removal of Chea Sophara,” said Song Bun Leang, chief of Preah Vihear provincial cabinet.
People living near the temple are particularly worried that Chea Sophara’s posting to Burma will end the development project which they have come to depend on for their living, Song Bun Leang said.
However, Preah Vihear Governor Preap Tann assured the project would not end with Chea Sophara’s departure.
“[The project] is not stuck, it is still going on,” he said, adding that changes in the government were very common.
“The [governor’s] position does not belong to anyone,” he said.
However, residents in Anlong Kngan—a village in Russei Keo district built for squatters relocated from city center areas—said they too felt vulnerable that assistance for their community would dry up with Chea Sophara’s departure.
The villagers had volunteered to sign a petition to help the governor retain his post, said Ly Vendredy, adding: “Now, I am explaining to them that it is a normal thing in the government.”
Chea Sophara has not commented since news of his removal was made public on Tuesday morning, despite reports that he is being blamed by Thai security sources for encouraging the anti-Thai riots.
The government has refused to explain, other than characterizing the removal as a normal government appointment.
Foreign diplomats say that Chea Sophara is the first of several officials who have been held responsible for the riots by Thai sources.
However, Chea Sophara’s removal has also been one way for Prime Minister Hun Sen to shift a popular official who could have presented a political challenge in the future, they added.
Chea Sophara’s fall from grace began as far back as early 2001, just months after the municipality successfully mopped up the failed Cambodian Freedom Fighters attack in Phnom Penh.
It was his tough dealings with security and crime in Phnom Penh that caused him his first serious confrontation with CPP rivals, government sources say.
In 1999, Chea Sophara led a crackdown on an illegal Chinese immigrant smuggling ring which had transited probably thousands of illegal immigrants through Cambodia. Chea Sophara alleged that the rings was organized by a senior police official and a Cambodian diplomat.
Chea Sophara circumvented the powerful police official by using Municipal Military Police to crack down on the human smuggling ring and other security operations.
However, government sources say, he lost control of the Military Police in May 2001 when a key military police commander was “promoted upstairs.”
Though once close to Hun Sen, Chea Sophara suffered when opposition party newspapers published numerous articles claiming the governor was more popular than Hun Sen and a possible candidate for prime minister.
According to a foreign diplomat, the final straw in his relationship with Hun Sen was likely a feature article on Chea Sophara in the Far Eastern Economic Review in August 2001 which quotes sources as saying that: “[Chea Sophara] could one day lead the country.”
“And while many in the ruling Cambodian People’s Party are viewed as relics of the past or corrupt, Chea Sophara has an image as a man of the people, for the people,” the article stated.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath, Lor Chandara and Kevin Doyle)