Smiling on the outside: former governor Chea Sophara leaves the Ministry of Interior after being shuffled February 11.
RIME Minister Hun Sen hinted on February 13 that more heads could roll following
the sacking of city governor Chea Sophara two days earlier.
And observers were highly skeptical of the government line that denies any link between
Sophara's new posting to Burma and the riots of January 29 in which the Thai Embassy
was sacked and burned and Thai business interests destroyed.
Hun Sen told a crowd at a ground-breaking ceremony for a pagoda in Kampong Speu on
February 13 that if Sophara had made a mistake, he would have gone to jail or been
"The changing of governors of provinces and cities is a normal habit of government.
It is a very simple thing," Hun Sen said. "That seat did not belong to
him forever. If Chea Sophara made a mistake, we would not appoint him to be an ambassador.
We would put him in handcuffs, or sack him or send him to jail."
But the Prime Minister hinted that more heads could roll: "Those chiefs of soldiers
or chiefs of police, if there is a need to remove [them], that should happen. This
is the power of the Prime Minister."
The dismissal of the popular governor is seen by some as a sop to Thailand in Phnom
Penh's bid to get normal diplomatic life back on track. Two weeks after the riots,
Thai envoys have returned, albeit in a reduced diplomatic capacity, the borders have
been partly re-opened, and some Thai businessmen are starting to reconstruct the
pieces of their shattered enterprises.
But the lingering question on many minds is whether the riots were orchestrated and,
if so, who was behind the event that so damaged the country's image.
"We may never know what really happened," said one resident expatriate
businessman. "It's like the attempted coup in 1994. Who really knows what happened
The common belief on the diplomatic circuit is that the riots were organized. The
gray area lies in the degree of organization.
"The students were organized to an extent," said an Asian diplomat, who
qualified his statement by noting that the rioters included "motodup drivers,
passers by, and just plain looters."
"The bong thoms were being used to run events on the night. It was very clinical
- there was precision in the way they destroyed property," said another Asian
diplomat. "They did not get the PTT stations, because that would have caused
collateral damage. This was not a spontaneous action to go and get Thai businesses.
They knew what to do and where to go. This was pre-planned."
Kriengkrai Khusai, manager of the Juliana Hotel, which was smashed, believes the
attacks were planned in advance.
"A group of motos came by to check out the hotel on Wednesday morning,"
he said. Nearly ten hours later a mob of 200 showed up at around 8:30 pm for the
The government has been under huge Thai pressure to act. Around 50 people were charged
with public disorder offenses, and two journalists were arrested, though later released
after the intervention of King Norodom Sihanouk.
The leader of the opposition went into hiding for three days fearing arrest. The
government denounced that as sheer theatrics. Diplomats said they were watching for
a crackdown in the opposition ahead of the election.
The ceremony confirming Sophara's new position took place behind heavily guarded
closed doors at the Ministry of Interior on February 11.
Sophara was replaced by Kep Chuktema, governor of Takeo province, who graduated with
a Bachelor's degree in Political Science in Hanoi (1981-1985) and is perceived by
some observers as "close to Sar Kheng".
Sophara's fall from grace comes after a Thai newspaper last week cited Thai intelligence
sources blaming a senior city official for his role in fomenting the riots.
"Thailand's investigation ... has focused on a high-ranking Phnom Penh city
official suspected of helping stir anger against Thailand," wrote The Nation
on February 8.
One diplomat in Phnom Penh speculated that Thai military elements may have been upset
with Sophara for his highly visible role in the on-going Preah Vihear Temple saga.
The former governor had visited the temple twice recently, and the border is still
closed to Thailand which hurts Thai economic interests there.
"The Thais demanded somebody," said the diplomat. "He's upset some
of the Thai military fellows ... He's so pro-Cambodian that the Thais are worried."
But the diplomat discounted the theory, voiced by some, that Hun Sen wanted to get
rid of Sophara as he was seen as a potential political threat.
"I don't believe it for a minute," said the envoy. "In ten years maybe.
He is not even a politburo member. A few years ago Chea Sophara was not known. Now
he speaks English, is learning French, plays golf, and wears Armani suits. He has
"I can see Hun Sen saying: 'Look, go to Myanmar, take a rest, you're coming
back'," said the diplomat.
Those sentiments were echoed by the Prime Minister in his February 13 speech.
"The other commentary said that Chea Sophara was the best rival candidate for
Prime Minister - Chea Sophara has never proposed to be Prime Minister [or] to be
Minister of Interior," Hun Sen said.
"But if he wants [the position] the time has not come for him yet. I told Chea
Sophara clearly that to travel a long distance he must have a stop, otherwise he
will not reach his destination."
Phnom Penh is rife with speculation over whether any other officials will also bite
the bullet, something Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra hinted at recently.
The Straits Times ran a story on February 8 saying that, according to an un-named
Interior Ministry official, Hok Lundy was due to go. That, said one observer, was
"I don't think so," an ASEAN diplomat told the Post. "Why would Hun
Sen want to lose his chief of National Police during an election year?"