At a ceremony to install a former military commander as governor of Preah Sihanouk province on Monday, Interior Minister Sar Kheng chided local police for allowing a Russian faction to give the tourist hub a bad name and ordered an end to illegal fishing off the coast.
Mr. Kheng, who has overseen a major reshuffle of some of the province’s most senior officials over the course of a turbulent year, officially handed power to Yon Min, former commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) in Koh Kong province.
The interior minister seized on the occasion to take aim at the maritime police for failing to secure Cambodia’s territorial sea and protect the livelihoods of local fishermen.
“You are supposed to pay attention to the ocean—that doesn’t just mean issuing tickets to allow them to fish,” he said, referring to a system where fishermen, mainly from Vietnam, pay authorities for the right to fish—often using illegal methods—in Cambodian waters. “Don’t think I don’t know about this.”
“Solve the problem,” he ordered.
“‘Ah, I don’t know how to resolve it, someone else can resolve it,’” he went on, mockingly playing the role of a local official. “So, you are committing an offense. I know it is maritime police. Are you here?”
Contacted by telephone, Oeng Sensambath, deputy chief of the maritime border police in charge of the waters off Preah Sihanouk, said he had been among some 400 officials in attendance at the ceremony, but was not aware that Mr. Kheng had addressed illegal fishing.
“I was sitting there, but I did not hear him mention that,” Mr. Sensambath said, going on to deny that his officers were taking a cut from foreign fishermen.
“Maritime border police work to protect security in the ocean and protect the security of the fishermen,” he said, declining to comment further.
In May, Vietnamese fishermen plying the waters between the islands of Koh Tang and Koh Rong Samloem told reporters that they were paying the Navy for the privilege, and had been doing so for years. The Navy denied any knowledge of the Vietnamese fishermen then, and on Monday said the same.
“There is no Navy involvement in allowing illegal fishing,” said Lieutenant General Tea Sokha, commander of maritime security at the Ream Naval Base in Sihanoukville.
Mr. Kheng concluded his speech Monday by saying that he would enlist the help of RCAF Commander Pol Saroeun in combating the problem.
Earlier in his address, the interior minister again launched into a rant about the lackluster policing that allowed a violent crime wave to sweep through Sihanoukville and the islands offshore last year and in early 2015.
“This province has great tourism potential, but maintaining public security is a priority: We have to pay attention,” he said, noting that plans for direct flights to Sihanoukville from Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam were on the table.
“As we all know, there was one group of Russians who came to hide here and our forces protected them. They did nothing,” he said, referring to fallen oligarch Sergei Polonsky and his associates, who enjoyed an up-and-down relationship with authorities as they undertook ambitious development plans on a string of islands off the coast.
Mr. Polonsky was deported in May to face charges of serious fraud in Russia.
“We have already taken a group of Russians, but some remain,” Mr. Kheng said.
In April, the interior minister removed provincial police chief Seang Kosal, who he accused of sleeping on the job, and replaced him with Chuon Narin, a hardened deputy police chief in Phnom Penh.
“The previous police chief was gentle, but we cannot blame him. Being gentle is good, but you can’t take action,” he said, adding that Major General Narin had performed effectively in his new role.
Maj. Gen. Narin could not be reached for comment.
In August, Sihanoukville governor Chin Sarin was also removed from his post and replaced by Y Sokleng, a deputy governor in Phnom Penh’s Prampi Makara district.
Brigadier General Min, the new provincial governor, replaced Chhit Sokhon, who was less than a year into the job, having transferred from the Takeo provincial council.
Brig. Gen. Min said last month his appointment had come as a surprise. He could not be reached Monday.
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