Prime Minister Hun Sen warned cabinet ministers on Friday that they could be fired if he is not kept informed of issues before they reach the media.
He said this when chastising three members of the Council of Ministers for what he termed “passing responsibility” and having “verbal clashes” in public over the Kratie water poisoning issue.
He told Industry and Handicraft Minister Cham Prasidh, Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem and Health Minister Mam Bun Heng that they had made conflicting comments despite the Health Ministry having disclosed test results that indicated that the poisoning was due to methanol and not cyanide.
So far 14 people have died and hundreds were hospitalised due to water poisoning in Sre Norn and Alorch villages in Kantuot commune, in Kratie province’s Chet Borey district.
“This is the last time I am warning you: I can remove any minister should you abuse power and not respect hierarchy. Over the past two days you have added to the controversy in news reports about people being poisoned in Kratie province".
“The test result showed that it was caused by methanol, and not cyanide, so why are your ministries mentioning cyanide as the cause and making conflicting comments in the media?” he asked.
A visibly angry Hun Sen also said: “I am the head of the government but was not kept informed of the matter. Your reports have not even reached me but are reported in The Phnom Penh Post.
“You, [as ministers,] must ensure that your reports reach me first before you tell reporters,” Hun Sen, told them.
The prime minister told the ministers that since day one, he had instructed the Ministry of Health to ascertain the cause of the Kratie poisonings.
“The ministry worked with the provincial governor to transport victims to Phnom Penh to conduct tests as soon as the incident happened,” he said.
Hun Sen also expressed frustration with The Post for quoting officials from the three ministries even after the Ministry of Health had released the test results on the poisonings.
Reading from a May 24, 2018, joint statement issued by all three ministers, he said the test results indicated that the poisonings were caused by local rice wine which was contaminated with high levels of methanol.
He told the ministers to “immediately publicise the joint release. “It is the official release and no one can deny that,” Hun Sen said.
The joint release also said the contamination involved water from the Prek Te and O’Koki canals that contained traces of pesticides and insecticides.
In The Post’s report on May 25, titled Cynide ‘found in samples’ Tin Ponlok, the Ministry of Environment’s secretary-general at the General Secretariat of the National Council for Sustainable Development, said early results showed that cynide “is not at a high level in the samples”.
Ponlok said, “I do not know how much cyanide it takes to harm or kill someone, so now we are waiting for the experts to examine the results.”
He said experts from both the environment, and mines and energy ministries were working on a detailed report based on analysis of the victims’ blood samples in order to submit it to the government for evaluation.
However, despite the low levels, the discovery by a Singapore laboratory of cyanide in the blood samples is along the line of a statement made by Prasidh on May 24.
In his comments, Prasidh said that besides chromium and nitrite, cyanide was found in a water sample taken from the Prek Te and Korki rivers in Kratie’s Bhet Boray district.
Hun Sun urged reporters, including The Phnom Penh Post, to inform the public that the cause of the poisoning was due to a local rice wine maker who used high levels of methanol, while traces of herbicides and pesticides were found in the canals of Prek Te and O’Koki in Kratie province.
In the press release on May 24, the three ministries said they will work together to prevent further health issues in the province.