Minister of Interior Sar Kheng’s recent private trip to France has drawn public attention and fuelled speculation about his health, among other things.

According to the interior ministry’s announcement on August 22, Sar Kheng travelled to France on August 22 and will remain there through September 5 in order to attend to private matters and personal business.

The ministry’s announcement said his departure came after permission was granted by Prime Minister Hun Sen, but there was no official purpose for the trip and that it would be up to Sar Kheng himself as to whether he would reveal any more details.

During his absence, the permanent secretary of state at the interior ministry, Sak Setha, will be acting minister of interior and will take over all of Sar Kheng’s duties until he returns.

Interior ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak reiterated to The Post on August 23 that Sar Kheng’s trip to France was for personal matters and thus not a matter appropriate for him to provide further comment on.

“It’s for his personal business, it’s unofficial. It is just personal travel like if you travelled to your hometown on the weekend or when you have a day off,” he told The Post.

Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, said because Sar Kheng was a very high-ranking official in the government as well in the Cambodia People’s Party and second in seniority and rank only to Hun Sen, this made him a public figure with the celebrity status that comes with being a leader or holding a position of power today.

Thus, his departure, for any reason or no reason at all, inevitably made people curious and attracted media attention, Phea said.

He said the public and the media may speculate about his health or gossip about other political issues harmlessly, but the truly malicious rumours can always be traced back to the opposition groups or anti-government activists.

“If Samdech Kralahom [Sar Kheng] left abruptly, people will say on social media that maybe he has a serious health problem or something like that, it always comes up,” Phea said.

He said that this sort of gossip is bandied about whenever someone of his rank in the national leadership breaks from their normal routine in any manner, whether to travel abroad or if they cancel their meetings for the entire week or if they are simply quietly working as usual but out of the public’s eye for a period of time.

In response to a question regarding whether Cambodian leaders should have time for vacations, Phea said that senior government officials rarely have private time for vacations, which is very different from leaders in the west who typically plan some leisure time into their schedules.

Cambodian leaders may also have time off from work as ordinary citizens do, Phea said, but such vacations are less frequent for senior Cambodian officials. So infrequent, in fact, that the very notion that Sar Kheng may be taking one is a matter of controversy somehow.

“Sometimes if we use the word vacation in connection to the high ranking leaders, it seems to carry a bad connotation, with people who think their leaders should be forever at work without any time for relaxation,” Phea said.

“It is different from other cultures where they can take time off to enjoy the summer weather or go play golf for a weekend. They are allowed some time for relaxation,” he said.