Prime Minister Hun Sen lost a strong ally within the Interior Ministry when the plane carrying late police chief Hok Lundy crashed Nov. 9, but officials say the prime minister's power will not be affected by a replacement.
Officials said last week that the loss of Hok Lundy, who led the national police since 1994, would be great to the government, but they were convinced national stability would not be affected.
"Nothing will change, stability will remain," said Em Sam An, secretary of state for the Interior Ministry, as he greeted a delegation of Vietnamese officials during funeral ceremonies for Hok Lundy last week. "We are sorry to lose the man. But our forces are in place and in good order. No problems will arrive. The situation in our country is getting better."
Hok Lundy was a powerful member of the Cambodian People's Party, appointed by Hun Sen "as part of an internal power play in the CPP" to take control of the police from CPP stalwarts Chea Sim, who is president of the Senate, and Sar Kheng, who is Minister of the Interior, said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
Hok Lundy's appointment came at a time of instability, following a failed coup attempt against Hun Sen and then co-prime minister Norodom Ranariddh, in 1994. His death, in a helicopter crash in Svay Rieng province, was a loss of a powerful right hand, but was not destabilizing, Adams said.
"After Hun Sen, he was probably the most feared man in Cambodia," Adams said.
Gen. Neth Savoeun, Hok Lundy's deputy and Hun Sen's nephew-in-law, has been named to replace the late police chief. Hok Lundy faced accusations of murder, extrajudicial killings and human trafficking, as well as collaboration in the 1997 grenade attack on opposition supporters that killed 16 people.
Neth Savoeun, who was the head of the criminal police section in the Phnom Penh Municipal Police, comes from the same security system, Adams said.
"Even in the 1980s, [Neth Savoeun] had a reputation for being among the most violent members of a very repressive security system," Adams said. "He too has been implicated in many serious human rights abuses and other crimes over the past two decades."
That appointment will likely not be challenged by Sar Kheng, Adams said.
Gen. Neth Savoeun declined comment.
Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry and adviser to Sar Kheng, dismissed the allegations, saying the police were on a five-year plan to maintain stability.
Even the US had shown Hok Lundy was "clean," he said, and had offered him a visa in 2007 to visit Washington for talks with the FBI.
"We know that Brad Adams has never talked good about our country, Cambodia," Khieu Sopheak said. "The facts differ from what he says."
He denied a factional split within the CPP, citing the party's win of 90 of 123 National Assembly seats in July's elections as proof of unity.
"Brad Adams' comments bear no merit," he said. "I mean, the dog barks, and the CPP cart moves ahead to 90 seats."
Kek Galabru, founder of the rights group Licadho, declined to comment on Hok Lundy's reputation, following Cambodian tradition, but said she hoped the new police chief would better honor human rights.
"I am speaking carefully because he has died, and we should not curse the dead," she said. "Cambodians know His Excellency Hok Lundy, so I don't need to comment more. The US government denied him a visa, so we all know there were a lot of allegations."
Her sentiments were echoed by Lt. Gen. Sok Phal, another Hok Lundy deputy, who warned reporters off strong criticism last week, asking they not "write something irrelevant which would impact the Khmers or our leaders" and should "write proper articles in his name, as the leader of the national police."