The director-general of Telecom Cambodia, one the country’s most highly regarded state-owned enterprises and a candidate for listing on the stock exchange, has left his post amid an investigation into corruption allegations, the minister of posts and telecommunications said on Thursday.
More than 300 staff from Telecom Cambodia protested Wednesday and Thursday outside the company’s headquarters in Phnom Penh, claiming that millions of dollars had gone missing from the company’s accounts and calling for director-general Lao Saroeun to be sacked.
Despite the staff’s claims that Mr. Saroeun had been suspended over the allegations, Minister So Khun insisted he was only on sick leave.
“Mr. Saroeun asked permission to go for a medical check. We have not suspended him,” he said.
Mr. Khun said that Mr. Saroeun had been replaced for the time being by deputy director Kem Vikra, and that he would investigate the allegations of corruption being made by staff.
“I can’t say whether I’ll fire him or not because we need to see all the evidence,” Mr. Khun said. “If we find that it’s true, we’ll send a letter to the top level to decide to replace him [permanently].”
Mr. Khun said he himself doubted the corruption allegations because the graft would have had to take place under the watch of the Finance Ministry, which oversees Telecom Cambodia’s finances.
“If Mr. Saroeun was corrupt, the Ministry of Finance would know,” he said.
The government had planned for Telecom Cambodia to be among the next companies to list on the Cambodian Securities Exchange, which began trading last year but still only lists the shares of one company, the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority. Listing on the bourse by law requires a high level of transparency and accounting standards.
Han Kyung-tae, managing director of Tong Yang Securities Plc., the broker handling Telecom Cambodia’s bid to list, said the listing was delayed, but not for reasons relating to Thursday’s events.
“We’re still working on it, but there are a couple of matters that we’re still working on with the government and Telecom Cambodia which has nothing to do with the incident that I heard about,” he said, declining to elaborate on the problems.
Beginning on Wednesday, more than 300 of the firm’s more than 600 staff went on strike over alleged graft and mismanagement of the company.
Petitions from the employees sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen and Mr. Khun, dated Wednesday, ask for Mr. Sarouen to be fired, and request that the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) investigate the claims of corruption by the director-general.
“We, the employees working at Telecom Cambodia, would like to inform the Excellency that the employees at Telecom Cambodia are disappointed with the leadership of the director-general,” the letters say.
Employees gathered outside the offices, who declined to give their names, claimed that more than $2 million was unaccounted for in the company’s finances, and that Mr. Saroeun had acquired “many villas and modern cars” during his tenure.
Tim Channarith, the manager in charge of outside plant, or cables, for Telecom Cambodia, said that staff had gone back to work Thursday after being told Mr. Saroeun had been suspended.
“If they don’t fire him, we will carry on the protest,” he said.
Mr. Saroeun could not be reached despite numerous attempts.
A sign of the regard with which the company, and its director-general are held, is found on the website of Telecom Cambodia, where Mr. Saroeun is pictured receiving numerous national and regional business awards.
But Mr. Channarith said that Mr. Saroeun had led the organization in a dictatorial style, which had roused ill feeling among staff.
“He changes everything whenever he wants. He’ll sign something in the morning, then cancel it in the evening,” he said.
“We ask the ACU to come to investigate because he [Mr. Saroeun] is rich now compared with before. How did he get rich?”
(Additional reporting by Simon Lewis)
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