Prime Minister Hun Sen has dismissed two Preah Sihanouk provincial governors and launched further investigation by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) and Ministry of Interior into their involvement in a long-running land dispute that led to violent clashes between security forces and villagers in Koki village in the province’s Prey Nop district.
On January 24, around 200 members of provincial forces implemented a Supreme Court ruling that granted disputed land in Bit Traing commune’s Koki village to nine families who originally owned it.
They were confronted by some 300 villagers who claimed to own part of the land and responded by blocking the road, burning tyres and throwing Molotov cocktails to obstruct authorities. A construction worker sustained injuries in his left shoulder from a gunshot.
The prime minister last week ordered the ministries of Interior and National Defence to investigate a provincial military commander and a deputy provincial governor and dismiss them if they were found to have abused their power in the case.
Hun Sen removed the two deputy provincial governors in a sub-decree signed on Friday. The fate of the military commander was not known.
“Today I am forced to implement the fifth approach, surgery, in removing Preah Sihanouk provincial deputy governors,” he said on his official Facebook page, referring to his five approaches to better governance through sweeping reforms – self-reflection, showering, exfoliation, treatment and surgery.
“I have to take out gravel and sand from my shoes so that I can walk further. I don’t have much time to talk with crafty officials because I have already educated them many times. From now on tigers, snakes, rats or flies won’t be exempt from punishment if they take advantages of people for personal gain,” he said, referring to officials at all levels.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the ACU and Ministry of Interior are also probing the two officials’ assets and alleged abuse of power.
“Investigation into irregularities in their asset accumulation is within the ACU’s purview, while administration-related irregularities fall under the Ministry of Interior’s jurisdiction . . . For administration issues, it is related to the land dispute."
“The two deputy governors knew the land belonged to the state but they still let it happen. They should have let the Ministry of Interior handle it,” he said.
ACU head Om Yentieng could not be reached for comment on Sunday, and neither was his personal assistant Yentieng Puthirith.
ACU deputy head Nuon Bophal said he was aware of the case but said a decision to investigate rested on Yentieng.
“I can’t elaborate now. According to the law only the unit head can make the decision,” he said.
Addressing the Preah Sihanouk provincial authorities on Friday, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said violent land disputes stemmed from a culture of intervention from the powerful, which he said caused injustice and protests.
“Land disputes in Preah Sihanouk province have persisted for a long time, not just recently. It was not as serious as it is now because land prices were not as high. Now with investments pouring in, land grabbing has become a big issue. The problem has been exacerbated by intervention from the powerful.
“I appeal to the powerful to end this culture and let provincial authorities do their job."
“It’s tough to find justice in the face of intervention from people who are more powerful than the provincial authorities,” he said.
Political analyst Ok Serei Sopheak said he applauded the government’s tough action.
He said strict law enforcement was needed if the government was to regain the trust of the general public.
“In this era, citizens have enough means to keep abreast [of the news] and determine what is true and false. Citizens fully support the ‘surgery’ approach of [Hun Sen] and the government."
“But please don’t disappoint the citizens again and again because a changing mind is like a dull knife – it’s not easy to sharpen. If their confidence is crushed, it’s not easy to regain it,” he said.
“In the foreseeable future, the younger generation will come to power and build a state leadership which will be different from the old generation because our society and demography have already had a deep turning point.”