Skepticism, Some Hope Over Cabinet Reshuffle

After Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday revealed the eight ministers involved in an unprecedented mid-term cabinet reshuffle, observers and opposition politicians on Sunday called the move a shrewd public relations maneuver but remained skeptical as to its ultimate impact.

Mr. Hun Sen submitted the proposed cabinet changes to Parliament on Wednesday and has said a vote will be held in the CPP-majority National Assembly on April 4.

Those set to retire or move are the ministers of foreign affairs, land management, agriculture, commerce, transport, rural affairs, telecommunications and religion. Eleven new secretaries of state were also added to an executive branch that has long been criticized for prioritizing patronage over efficiency.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the changes were meant to improve public services, adding that some ministers had not heeded the prime minister’s recent warnings to clean up their ministries.

“The reshuffle is to strengthen the unity and give better service to the people from each ministry where there is change,” he said, adding that the aim was also to cut down on nepotism. “Because [of] nepotism, some ministers were not able to improve.”

Mr. Siphan insisted, however, that the moves were not punitive, despite Mr. Hun Sen specifically naming two of the ministers—Transport Minister Tram Iv Tek and Agriculture Minister Ouk Rabun—as being too “slow” in the weeks leading up to the shakeup.

“Reshuffling is not the punishment; it is the rearrangement,” he said, adding that the moves should serve as a wake-up call to all ministers. “This applies to good governance and hits people to remind them to take nothing for granted.”

Asked about the changes, opposition leader Sam Rainsy said there were “still too many dinosaurs with frightening pedigree” in the government.

Mr. Rainsy said that attending the vote would be “a waste of time,” but that he would leave it up to others in the party to decide whether to boycott the session.

“This government just reflects a one-party system under a one-man rule,” Mr. Rainsy said.

But while most analysts and experts said the changes would have little impact in an administration with highly centralized power, one of the more optimistic voices outside of the ruling party was lawmaker Son Chhay, a senior policymaker in the opposition CNRP.

“There is some positive change—we have to see this positive change—this time better people have been appointed to the important ministries,” he said, naming Sun Chanthol, who is moving from the Commerce Ministry to the Public Works and Transportation Ministry, as an example.

“I think Sun Chanthol has been recognized as a good minister. By appointing him to an important ministry, I think this will make some good changes for road safety and road improvement,” he said.

Mr. Chhay also said that the appointment of two untested new ministers—Pan Sorasok and Veng Sakhon, tipped to head the commerce and agriculture ministries, respectively—was a good sign. Mr. Sorasak was a secretary of state at the Commerce Ministry, while Mr. Sakhon was a secretary of state at the Ministry of Water Resources.

“Any changes would be positive,” he said, adding that the decision by Mr. Hun Sen was still motivated by politics as the 2017 commune elections and 2018 national election approach.

“A new image of the government needs to be in place, particularly some ministries that would affect the public opinion,” Mr. Chhay said. “If the new ministers can do a better job, the prime minister hopes that he can attract more votes and he will be more effective to run the country after the next election.”

Sam Inn, the secretary-general of the Grassroots Democracy Party, said he would have liked to see changes in the ministries of health and justice as well, but hoped the reformed cabinet would be a wake-up call.

“The reform is also good to alert other ministries to work hard for the nation and for the people, especially public services,” he said.

Mr. Inn said he was particularly optimistic about Mr. Chanthol taking over the Transport Ministry and Chea Sophara, the outgoing rural affairs minister, running the Land Management Ministry.

“Personally, I observe that Chea Sophara is the guy who works really well with his management, and he is good with his leadership because of his experience working as the governor of the Phnom Penh municipality,” Mr. Inn said.

However, Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said it did not matter who was running the ministries, as Mr. Hun Sen would still be calling the shots.

“The system of land problems is not about a minister who can solve the problem, it is a systemic problem,” he said. “I think if the prime minister or the government as a whole commits, they can resolve this problem. The minister sometimes has no real power.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Panha said the ruling party would no doubt sell the ministerial shakeup as evidence of a reform-minded administration.

“They have some propaganda that they are going to increase efficiency with the new ministers, but I don’t think the public will recognize this as a serious reform because they don’t see any clear change,” he said.

Mr. Panha said the main reasons for the proposal was to ensure that senior CPP officials, including a number of retiring provincial governors, had a comfortable position in the government.

“So they just increase the number of secretaries of state, so that means the CPP looks more at the political stability of their own party and the government—it is a political benefit, not for the public,” he said. “They just exchange ministers and increase numbers to make sure that the senior members of the CPP are happy with this exchange.”

Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, lamented the fact that Mr. Iv Tek, the outgoing transport minister, and Mr. Rabun, the outgoing agriculture minister, were moved to run the ministries of telecommunications and rural affairs, respectively.

“Samdech prime minister criticized them for being ‘slow,’ but they just moved to other ministries, so it seems like there is no change,” Mr. Sam Ath said.

“I think that reshuffling ministers just seems to reform the internal parts of the party but it cannot reform the way things operate,” he added.

“With a broken car, even if we ask a new driver to drive, it still will not go. So it is like this problem; even if the government changes the new ministers, the operations are still the same.”

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