Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Friday delivered a dressing-down to Takeo governor Lay Vannak for blocking a Human Rights Day march last week, a rare move from the head of a ministry that usually has no qualms about using force to break up peaceful protests.
At a monthly Interior Ministry meeting, Mr. Kheng said the governor had no right to block the marchers without approval from his superiors.
“He did not ask advice from anybody when he stopped the marchers…. This is not right, because they were just walking,” he said, noting that the marchers included monks, nuns and elderly activists, and were not carrying any weapons.
“All the provinces have done good work except Takeo province,” Mr. Kheng added. “From now on, he has to ask for advice…. It cannot be like this.”
At the time of the march, a provincial councilor said authorities had no choice but to block the 80-strong group, which was on its way to Phnom Penh, because the monks leading the march had failed to receive permission to participate from the Ministry of Cults and Religion.
National police chief Neth Savoeun, who also attended Friday’s meeting, reiterated that Mr. Vannak needed a green light from the interior minister to stop the march, and said provincial police chief Ouk Samnang had been asked to relay this message.
“We advised the provincial police chief…to tell the provincial governor to seek advice from the acting prime minister [Mr. Kheng] because he has no right to order the armed forces to stop the march,” General Savoeun said.
Mr. Vannak could not be reached Sunday.
On Friday, however, the governor told Voice of Democracy (VOD) that he suspected some of the marchers did not hold citizenship, and were from southern Vietnam, an area that once belonged to the Khmer empire known as Kampuchea Krom.
“We checked them because there were reports that there were monks from Kampuchea Krom taking part, so we asked to check their identity cards,” he told VOD.
The governor did not say what the inspection of the identity cards revealed.
In 2012, Mr. Vannak was accused by police of shooting the owner of a karaoke parlor in the foot during a night of partying.
At Friday’s meeting, Mr. Kheng, noting some of the other “strange things” that have taken place in Takeo, also rebuked Mr. Vannak for recently summoning court officials to his office for questioning.
In a letter dated October 7, Mr. Vannak summons the director of the Takeo Provincial Court and a prosecutor to answer questions about a decision not to detain two people suspected of possessing and using drugs.
Switching topics, the interior minister said a new system whereby civil servants are paid through bank accounts to root out “ghost workers”—people who draw salaries without showing up for work—was facing problems.
“Some people who do not work can still withdraw their salaries,” he complained. “They are human beings and they are alive, but they do not come to work; this is an issue and we need to look into it carefully.”