Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the removal of the director of the Phnom Penh department of health from his post on Saturday for apparently enforcing a Health Ministry directive, faulting the official for impounding an unregistered ambulance belonging to the popular ABC Radio station without the involvement of police.
Phnom Penh Municipality Health Department Director Sok Sokun couldn’t be reached for comment yesterday, but local media outlet Fresh News – which is often used to disseminate government directives – reported that the Health Ministry had nominated him for the position of deputy inspector general. Minister of Health Mam Bunheng hung up on a reporter without answering any questions, and ministry spokespeople didn’t return several requests for comment.
The shuffle came after health department officials on Thursday morning spotted and seized the ambulance, which bore no licence plates – going against directives from the Ministry of Health, according to a statement from the department on its official Facebook page.
What’s more, the statement said, the ambulance lacked professional medical personnel and equipment, and instead was carrying fruit juice and health products that it was selling to customers.
ABC, however, claimed it was using the ambulance to provide humanitarian assistance, and on Saturday morning, Hun Sen called into the station to not only apologise for the seizure, but to promise the station two more ambulances.
“I apologise for some authorities’ measures that have done wrong against the humanitarian [efforts] of ABC Radio, but today I solved this problem,” the premier said, saying he had ordered Sokun’s removal and adding that he “would like to give two more cars to help people”.
The premier, who in 2011 publicly said he earns $1,150 a month, did not say if he would pay for the vehicles out of his own pocket.
He also said that he was ordering local officials to provide plates for ABC’s ambulances, acknowledging that the station had been in the wrong for lacking the plates, but that Sokun had been equally at fault for failing to involve police or the courts.
Sokun had also failed to submit a report to superiors or prosecutors after the vehicle was impounded, he added, calling it an example of the “right implementation of the law, but it was the wrong procedure”.
He went on to say that though Sokun must be removed, he could be shifted to a different position. While some local media reports seemed to suggest Sokun would get his job back, officials from the Health Ministry could not be reached last night to confirm their accuracy.
Cambodia’s private ambulances have a murky history of not having the appropriate medical personnel and lacking necessary equipment to treat patients while transporting them to health facilities.
Sokun, in a press conference following the ambulance’s seizure on Thursday, said the Ministry of Health has confiscated 10 ambulances since 2008.
Private ambulances also have been accused of often racing to emergency scenes to beat the public ambulances and secure extortionate payment from the victims. Since 2004, the Ministry of Health has issued several directives warning private ambulances against picking up patients from accident scenes.
The health department on Thursday said that it was always working to monitor private ambulances to prevent them from operating against the law, behaviour that should be encouraged, according to Chhel Sarim of the health NGO Medical Teams International in Cambodia.
“I think [all private ambulances] should follow the law,” said Sarim. “They cannot do whatever they want. They are not a taxi. If they haven’t been trained to treat patients, they can cause more harm.”
But rather than encouraging the robust implementation of the law, Sokun’s removal might actually have the opposite effect, said Ou Virak, founding of the Future Forum think tank.
“It’s not only undermining the rule of law, but the removal of the guy is sending a chilling message to other officials” who enforce the law, he said. “It discourages law-abiding citizens.”