In just over four months since the August inauguration of the seventh-mandate government, more than 50 police officers have been dismissed, demoted or transferred for misconduct. 

At least 30 of the cases have occurred since December, with many analysts saying that the moves reflect the new government’s strong political will to carry out reforms. Some commentators called for more action, however.

Disciplinary action has been taken by the Ministry of Interior against police officers from the rank and file all the way to the rank of three-star general, for what the ministry called “breaches of police discipline”.

Rank no protection

The highest-ranking officer who has been reportedly disciplined was Lieutenant General Koem Cheat, undersecretary of state at the interior ministry. He was fired from his position by a December 14 Royal Decree.

Although the decree did not reveal the reason for his dismissal, well-connected local media outlet Fresh News reported that the three-star general was involved in the extortion of as much as $100,000 from an alcohol company during his tenure as a deputy chief in the Cambodian Counter Counterfeit Committee (CCCC).

In a separate January 5 decree, King Norodom Sihamoni demoted four other one and two-star generals in the National Police to the rank of ‘chief corporal’, the lowest rank of the Cambodian police command structure.

The officers included Touch Yuthea, who also served as a deputy chief in the CCCC.

On December 26, Prime Minister Hun Manet issued a sub-decree transferring Lt Gen Tan Sovichea from the position of head of the secretariat of the CCCC to adviser at the interior ministry, with the equivalent rank of head of department. No explanation was offered.

The most recent case was made public on January 3, when interior minister Sar Sokha announced that Horm Sovanrith, deputy chief of the Preah Sihanouk provincial police, had been demoted from Lieutenant Colonel rank to Major, for “violating police discipline”. 

(L) General Keom Cheat who was demonted from police ranking. (R) Horm Sovanrith who was demoted from deputy cheif of Preah Sihanouk provincial police. FBHeng Chivoan

Sovanrith was transferred out of Preah Sihanouk province to serve in an intervention unit under the National Police.

On the same day, Sokha removed Som Sotharoth from the position of deputy police chief for the capital’s Chroy Changvar district and reduced his rank from Lieutenant Colonel to Major, for the same reason.

Sokha also issued two January 3 notices announcing the dismissal of 12 Phnom Pen municipal and district level police officers, for various breaches of discipline.

At the provincial level, 11 police officers in Prey Veng were fired through two separate December 22 notices. While the notification again referred to “violations of police discipline”, local media reported that the officers were involved in drug crimes.

Interior ministry spokesperson Touch Sokhak told The Post on January 9 that around 40 officers have been fired, with several more demoted or transferred.

Orders from the top

In a message to observe the December 9 International Anti-Corruption Day, Prime Minister Hun Manet vowed to continue to adhere to his predecessor Hun Sen’s slogan of “Look in the mirror, take a bath, clean the body, get treatment, and undergo surgery”.

“We must apply this. Look in the mirror to see if we have gotten ourselves dirty. If we have, then shower to clean ourselves up. If unwell, seek treatment. If that fails, have surgery regularly. By so doing, our society and individuals will maintain the cleanliness of our socio-economic development, as well as strengthen security, public order and peace in Cambodia.

“Anything that may affect the public interest must be prevented immediately,” he said.

His position was reiterated by Sokha on December 18, when he warned that any officer within the ministry’s purview who tests positive for drugs or is implicated in drug cases would be dismissed.

Sokhak explained that whether or not an officer was dismissed, demoted or transferred would depend on several criteria.

“We will base our decisions on the five-point slogan left by former Prime Minister Hun Sen. The incumbent prime minister has made it clear that we must ‘clean house’, and determine where we need to clean and where we need to remove people,” he said.

“All of the action we take will be based on the concept introduced by interior minister Sar Sokha, who explained that our main role is to serve the people. Thanks to all of these points, the ministry is committed to any necessary action, without exception,” he added.

An officer stands guard in front of the interior ministry headquarters in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district as the new building was inaugurated in November.

Sokhak explained that disciplinary action could result from several sources, including complaints from the public or the media, as well as the ministry’s own internal bodies.

“Whether we fire or demote an officer, or apply some other penalty, we are doing it to ensure transparency, equality and justice for our honest officials,” he said.

“It’s also for the sake of the public. We must remember that they pay tax to the state and that tax goes to our officials. So, we can say in simple words that officials are paid by the people, and must serve them,” he added.

Clean-up backs vision

Government spokesperson Pen Bona told The Post that the Manet administration has the long-term vision of achieving upper-middle income status by 2030 and high-income by 2050.

To realise this vision, he said six priorities have been the focus of the first phase of the government’s Pentagonal Strategy. These priorities aim to support the poor and vulnerable through capacity building, to enable them to increase their incomes.

He added that reforms and good governance are at the core of each of the government’s strategies, and underlined the importance of the five-point anti-corruption slogan to the new government.

 “Moreover, Prime Minister Hun Manet has also issued his own guidelines for reforms. His personal slogan is ‘Long vision, commitment, engagement and sacrifice’,” said Bona.

“Therefore, all civil servants must serve the people. They must base their work on the six priorities of the Pentagonal Strategy, which focus on supporting the people by any possible means. Any officials who go against these principles will be punished, based on the level of their wrongdoing,” he added.

Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, supported and applauded the latest disciplinary actions. 

“I believe that these reforms will earn wide support from the public. Previously, we saw some irregularities by a small number of officials who abused their power for personal gains. Therefore, these measures must continue to be widely enforced, especially against any official who puts their personal interests ahead of the public,” he said.

Phea believes that continued government action will gain public trust in the provision of public services, as well as in the government as a whole. 

He urged the government to keep taking disciplinary action as required, and cautioned about letting the current campaign fall quiet after a short time.

He believes that reforms should be systemic, with no exceptions for any wrongdoers, regardless of whether they have powerful backers or not.

“Disciplinary measure must be systematic, with no favouritism or discrimination. This will boost public support for the government, and ensure future support for the ruling party,” he said.