Although no specific explanation has been given for the October 8 sacking of Veng Sakhon from the position of agriculture minister, Prime Minister Hun Sen defended his decision, stressing that the dismissal and subsequent appointment of an acting minister were in line with the Constitution.
Sakhon was removed from office by a royal decree, with Minister of Economy and Finance Aun Pornmonirath designated as acting agriculture minister during the interim.
In a social media post on the night of October 9, Hun Sen hit back at opposition groups who criticised the stripping of Sakhon’s portfolio. He said critics should consult the Constitution and relevant laws.
“To contribute to increasing the knowledge of the opposition groups who are desperate to obtain power in their next lives, I suggest you read Article 21 in Chapter 2 of the Constitution which refers to the king. Then you should read Article 20 in Chapter 3 of the Law on the Organisation and Functioning of the Council of Ministers,” he wrote.
“Your lack of knowledge has led you to prison sentences or forced you to flee the country, and now you accuse us of being dictators. You should educate yourselves if you want to gain power in your next lives; don’t overwhelm yourselves by gambling. It is my intent to help you correct your ignorance,” he added.
Hun Sen’s message was in apparent response to Eng Chhai Eang, former lawmaker and vice-president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, who recently took to Facebook chiding the premier for his “intolerance of criticism and not displaying the attitude of a leader in a democratic country”.
Chhai Eang said he accepted that the firing of any minister was the right of the prime minister, but that it should first have gone through several procedures, including debate in parliament. He also claimed that Article 20 of the Law on the Organisation and Functioning of the Council of Ministers was unconstitutional.
“This article was made in June 2018, so it was newly passed. It differs from what was passed in 1993. The amended article violates the spirit of the Constitution and is therefore unconstitutional. The previous law required the approval of parliament before the appointment of any minister, but this new article stipulates that the prime minister has the power to remove a member from the Council of Ministers without having to go through the parliament,” he said.
“Upon the request of the Council of Ministers, the King shall sign royal decrees appointing, transferring or removing from office, senior civil and military officials, ambassadors and envoys extraordinary and plenipotentiary,” states the new Article 21.
Article 20 of the Law on the Organisation and Functioning of the Council of Ministers states that the prime minister may request the King to remove any government member from their position by a royal decree.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the criticism by the former opposition figure did not reflect the true situation in Cambodia. He said the procedures for appointing and removing ministers are similar to other nations which adopt a parliamentary system.
“Removing or appointing government members must be done according to the law. When the opposition group claims something is ‘unconstitutional’, they have not read the law. The prime minister has the power to strip a minister of his portfolio or to transfer them. It is solely the prime minister who is responsible before parliament, not the whole council of ministers,” he said.
The sacking of Sakhon has received both support and criticism from members of the public.
Theng Savoeun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmers Community, said it was not surprising that Sakhon had been removed from the post, claiming that he was a minister whose capacity was obviously still limited.
“I think this is a clear signal to all officials that they should take on the duties and responsibilities of solving problems in the sectors they are selected to be in charge of. It is also an opportunity for dignitaries and officials with strong abilities to show their skills and solve problems for the people,” he said.
He said the agricultural sector has faced many challenges and difficulties in doing business, as well as farming in Cambodia, noting that before the removal, the prime minister had publicly rebuked Sakhon, in what was widely seen as a warning to other public officials to display a strong will to support the citizens.
Meas Ny, a social development researcher, echoed Savoeun’s remarks. “In the past, solutions in the agricultural sector have not been implemented as widely as they could have been, and even the market crisis has not improved.”
Ny was curious about the procedure which allowed a minister to be dismissed immediately.
“The problem as I see it is the speed of the termination. I thought the removal of any minister would have to go through the National Assembly – like when we select a cabinet. When one is removed, I am unclear as to the correct procedure, so I admit I do not understand the situation perfectly,” he added.
Ny was of the view that the lack of a new minister may be the result of distrust by the internal officials of the agriculture ministry, or it may be that the decision was taken too quickly to select a suitable candidate.
“The Finance ministry has an important role to play in the current world climate, especially with the inflationary pressure that the world is facing,” he said.
He added that he did not think the acting agriculture minister should be expected to hold two portfolios at the same time.
Transparency International Cambodia executive director Pech Pisey begged to differ, saying that the sacking of Sakhon from his office was the right of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is in charge of appointing and transferring the leadership of each ministry.
He said there was nothing wrong with the procedure. “If we look at the procedure, there is nothing amiss. I think that dismissals and transfers within the executive branch are perfectly normal in any general administration.
“If the leader or prime minister thinks that an official is not qualified, unmotivated or their work is not effective, the prime minister can remove them. It is a simple management process,” he said.
Pisey said that he supported the transfer of inactive officials so opportunities could be given to those who might offer more innovative ideas. He also suggested that the government appoint more women in leadership roles.
Additional report by Nov Sivutha.