A Justice Ministry official accused of taking control of 990 hectares in a wildlife sanctuary and threatening Bunong villagers over a further 472 hectares has been removed from his position as undersecretary of state.
Seng Sovannara was pulled from his post as requested by Prime Minister Hun Sen, according to a royal decree dated August 24.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan on Monday confirmed that Sovannara was removed from his position in relation to unspecified land issues in Mondulkiri province.
“Removal from a post is the right of the prime minister and clearly it would have been a mistake that made [Prime Minister Hun Sen] act to remove, but I don’t know the next measures,” Siphan told VOD.
He referred additional questions to the Anti-Corruption Unit.
ACU deputy president Kheang Seng said the unit was not sure whether it would open an investigation into Sovannara, adding that there was no evidence of corruption.
Seng declined further comment and referred questions to ACU head Om Yentieng, who also declined to speak with a VOD reporter.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin declined to answer questions about the reason for Sovannara’s dismissal.
Government officials sacked over bad publicity in the past have been typically transferred to new positions or at times promoted, including former Preah Sihanouk provincial governor Yun Min who was replaced following a deadly building collapse under his watch and quickly promoted to the rank of four-star general in the Defense Ministry.
In July, Sovannara was accused by 55 indigenous Bunong families in Mondulkiri’s O’Reang district of threatening them in June with arrest if they did not accept that their land belonged to him.
“Seng Sovannara is from the Justice Ministry in Phnom Penh and he is an Excellency. That is why we feel confused and why it’s complicated,” a villagers’ representative, Norn Sev, said at the time.
“He said ethnic minority people shouldn’t be arrogant” and told them “not to resist and threatened everyone,” Sev said.
Around the time the villagers made their complaints public, Mondulkiri governor Svay Sam Eang rescinded a January edict granting 990 hectares of land in Koh Nhek district to Sovannara, saying that the land turned out to be part of the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary.
“After the provincial administration conducted an actual inspection, it found that the ownership of the above land had irregularities that affected the conservation area, which is state land,” a July 24 letter signed by Sam Eang said.
Neither Sovannara nor Sam Eang have commented on the land issues, though when contacted by VOD in July Sovannara said he was too busy to respond.
“Sorry, I am busy checking people’s rice, which is dying,” he told VOD.
Additional reporting by Khan Leakhena
Updated at 6:25 p.m. with comments from Phay Siphan, Chin Malin, Kheang Seng and Om Yentieng
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)