Amid recent spate of arrests, some see a factional focus
This week, a provincial police chief and four high-ranking officers went on trial for corruption. Last week, a brigadier general was convicted for weapons smuggling and anti-government incitement. A week before that, two major generals were arrested for drug smuggling. A month earlier, four top officials connected to the Senate were arrested on charges of fraud.
The crimes may vary, but the suspects have something in common: They are high-level, they are politically aligned and they are not part of the most powerful faction inside the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Some see a pattern to those being targeted at a time when the government makes a very public effort to crack down on corruption within its own ranks.
Though CPP members do not admit to factions existing within the ruling party, among the list of once-powerful people now facing trial, there are some similarities: Former Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Hun Hean previously had ties to Interior Minister Sar Kheng; RCAF Brigadier General Samith Virak was once known as a loyalist of former RCAF Commander in Chief and Deputy Prime Minister Ke Kim Yan; and the recently arrested major generals, Lay Virak and Khuon Roeurn, are Funcinpec loyalists.
The four arrested Senate officials, meanwhile, were all closely linked to Senate President Chea Sim, and their alleged criminal activities were uncovered shortly after the surprise arrest of the chief of Mr Chea Sim’s personal bodyguard unit.
“Lately, there have been crackdowns on officials who do not belong to the one faction within the CPP,” political analyst Lao Mong Hay said.
“I don’t know whether this is a continuation of the crackdown, but the prime minister is trying to consolidate his power,” he added.
Government officials insist there is not factionalism inside the CPP and the arrests are simply the impartial enforcement of the rule of law.
“This is about crimes and punishment, not factional fighting,” Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said last week.
That point was echoed by Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who called claims of ruling party factionalism simply untrue.
“It’s a fact for the government to enforce a state of law. They should try to get rid of the idea of factionalism in the government and in society,” Mr Siphan said. “We all have to live under the rule of law. It doesn’t matter how big or powerful you are.”
Whether factional or not, the arrest of corrupt officials is a popular move.
Cleaning house, say observers, regardless of possible politicking among the ruling CPP, is beneficial.
“It does not matter what party they belong to. If the claim is true, better to start with somebody,” said political analyst Chea Vannath.
“If they do something unlawful, it’s fine with me that they are arrested,” he said.
For the most part, the crimes that high-ranking suspects are accused of are straightforward, and the body of proof is ample. However, in other cases, it appears more nebulous.
The former provincial police chief Hun Hean already confessed to taking thousands of dollars in bribes in exchange for keeping drug smugglers out of prison. A verdict in the case will be announced next week. At the same time, evidence appears to be mounting against those members of Mr Chea Sim’s Cabinet who are accused of tricking the Senate president into signing faked contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But the family of Samith Virak—the officer found guilty of smuggling weapons, anti-government incitement and the unauthorized use of military insignia—say the charges are politically motivated and they will appeal.
And those who know Lay Virak and Khuon Roeurn—both allegedly caught with one kilogram of methamphetamine in their car—last week expressed utter disbelief.
“It was a surprise for me. I never heard of [Lay Virak] dealing with drugs…. And [Khuon Roeurn] has a very good reputation as a serious military officer since the KPLNF,” said Sonn Soubert, a historian and the son of the late Khmer People’s National Liberation Front leader, Sonn San.
“This is really a puzzle for me,” he said.
“If it is the case,” Mr Soubert said after a pause, “why only one side, why not the other side?”
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)