Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Manet has sacked a prominent provincial city mayor while reports say rank and file members of the police and military, up to the rank of brigadier general, have been fired or demoted amid allegations of corrupt practices.
The shake-up had been forecast by diplomats in recent weeks with Cambodian authorities grappling with organized crime and human trafficking, which have tainted the country’s image as a tourist destination and frightened off potential foreign investors.
Semi-official Fresh News announced Friday that Hun Manet had issued a decree to terminate Kep City Governor Kheng Yuan while the government-friendly Khmer Times reported on Sunday that the ousted mayor had been charged with money laundering and abuse of power.
It said that Kheng Yuan was arrested by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) and charged by an investigating judge from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with corruption, money laundering, and terrorist financing.
“The position of the Kep Mayor has used the power of his role to commit acts that harm the interests of the state and the interests of many citizens. This decision is based on a clear basis of the Anti-Corruption Unit’s investigation,” Hun Manet said.
ACU officials had initially detained Kheng Yuan and a close colleague, In Hun, the head of city administration, for questioning two weeks ago but authorities said they were mistakenly detained and released amid some confusion.
Kheng Yuan’s dismissal follows the rise of Mey Dina, once a spokesperson for the Ream Naval Base, who assumed control of Ream, described by the United States as China’s second foreign naval base after Djibouti, from Adm. Ouk Seiha in December.
Kep City, the Ream Naval Base, and Sihanoukville sit strategically along Cambodia’s coastline which was redefined by massive Chinese investment in the 2010s. But much of this evaporated with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and has not returned.
In the meantime, international law enforcement agencies, governments, and human rights groups have singled out Sihanoukville as a hub for Chinese crime syndicates, human trafficking, and scam compounds that the government insists are being dealt with effectively.
That includes money laundering, which has been tied to several casinos in Sihanoukville, since it first emerged as a gambling mecca capable of rivaling Macau almost a decade ago.
On January 3, a progress meeting on combating human trafficking and sexual exploitation in 2023 was held between the national police and the Ministry of Interior and could yield results.
Recent dismissals and demotions include a senior police officer at the General Department of Identification who was fired by Interior Minister Sar Sokha for abuse of authority. He also fired the Preah Sihanouk provincial deputy police chief and demoted him.
King Norodom Sihamoni also issued a royal decree ordering the demotions of four high-ranking officers from the Cambodian Counter Counterfeit Committee for committing serious offenses while at work.
In another royal decree, Sihamoni ordered the removal of Brig. Gen. Keo Rath Mony. A further 10 police officers under the General Commission of the National Police were fired after being found to be in possession of drugs.
Diplomats have said a bureaucratic shake-out, designed at least in part to weed out corruption, was in the offing since former prime minister Hun Sen transferred power to his eldest son Hun Manet in August, and ahead of senate elections to be held on February 25.
“This is just the start,” one Western diplomat said. “There’s a new prime minister and a new government and Hun Manet’s needs to assert his control and rid the ranks of the corrupt practices which have emerged since COVID-19 erupted.”
Hun Sen, who remains president of the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has signed off on nominations for the senate elections.
Notably, CPP politicians holding the top three leadership positions, President Say Chhum, first-vice president Sim Ka and second-vice president Tep Ngorn, were omitted from the candidates list. But former foreign minister Prak Sokhonn and Gen. Neang Phat will contest the poll.