Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen fired his agriculture minister over the weekend, following the loss of tens of thousands of hectares of rice paddies and other crops in torrential flooding — a move farm groups welcomed Monday as a sign of more government attention to their plight.
Agriculture Minister Veng Sakhon was replaced on Saturday by Aun Pornmoniroth, deputy prime minister and minister of economy and finance, who is now also acting minister of agriculture.
“I call for an urgent cooperation between the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and subnational authorities such as the National Disaster Management Committee to jointly make assessments on the scale of the damage and to prepare for transporting rice seeds and other plant seeds to be distributed to target areas,” Hun San said in a public audio message on Oct. 8. “It is a necessity, and we have to do it urgently.”
A royal decree dated Oct. 8 and signed by King Norodom Sihamoni formally terminated Veng Sakhon without providing a reason and said that Hun Sen was in charge of implementing the decree.
Farm groups and civil society activists welcomed the firing, and urged Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to take similar actions with senior officials at other ministries who have been inactive and not responsive to the needs of the people.
Theng Savoeun, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, noted that Hun Sen warned Veng Sakhon about his inaction on several occasions.
His sacking “could relate to several factors that some of our farmers are facing with issues of lacking access to market, while others have been affected by the floods without proper intervention, [and] the failure to help provide seeds to farmers in times of need,” he told RFAs. “It shows the lack of responsibility during his term.”
Theng Savoeun urged the government to consider sacking other officials at the Agriculture Ministry who are not performing their duties.
Devastating floods caused by torrential rains following a severe drought in the Southeast Asian nation have destroyed almost 24,700 hectares of rice fields nationwide, according to a report by the National Disaster Management Committee (NDMC). More than 770 communes in 22 provinces across Cambodia had been affected, especially in the northern part of the country.
Additionally, the floods damaged more than 133,230 hectares of rice paddy fields and nearly 11,850 hectares of mixed crops, the NDMC said. At least 20 people have died, and over 1,700 families have had to be evacuated.
The NDMC said the rainy season, which usually ends in October, would continue until December this year due to the La Nina phenomenon that cools ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean and results in heavy rains in Southeast Asia every three to five years.
The situation hasn’t boded well for farmers, hit hard first by the drought and now by heavy rains and flooding, given that agricultural activities are the main source of income for many Cambodians living in rural areas.
Hun Sen requested that Heng Samrin, president of the National Assembly, arrange a vote of confidence for Dith Tyna, the current secretary of state of the Ministry of Mines and Energy, to be the new agriculture minister.
Yang Saing Koma, an agriculture expert-turned-politician and the current chairman of the board of directors of the Grassroots Democracy Party, told RFA that Veng Sakhon appeared to be out of touch and had difficulty working with civil society and political parties.
“It reflects the reality not just inside the Ministry of Agriculture,” he said. “Likewise, it happens among other ministries. It is just the fact that the Agriculture Ministry plays a vital role in Cambodia given the fact that it relates to so many people who are farmers and to the country’s economy,” he said.
RFA could not reach Veng Sakhon for comment.
Veng Sakhon faced criticism for irregularities during the bidding of licenses for importing pork to local markets and the seizure of thousands of acres of forest land by the wealthy around Lake Tonle Sap for their personal interest or ownership.
The former minister also was involved in granting protected land near the Phnom Tamao Zoo to a private company for development, resulting in the clearance of several hectares of protected forest land. The project was later revoked by Hun Sen following public outcry on social media.
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