Agronomist and former opposition politician Yang Saing Koma will be promoted to a secretary of state position in the Agriculture Ministry — an appointment political analysts say reflects the government’s desire to address low rice prices.
Saing Koma was the steering committee chairman and former prime minister candidate for the Grassroot Democratic Party, an opposition party he co-founded. On Sunday, he announced he had defected to the ruling CPP in order to develop the agricultural sector at a time when farmers have been struggling with low paddy prices.
Im Rachna, a spokesperson at the Ministry of Agriculture, told CamboJA that Saing Koma will be appointed secretary of state and Loek Sothea, a former spokesperson at GDP will be appointed undersecretary of state.
“The minister [Dith Tina] will arrange a suitable role based on their abilities and potentials,” she said.
While political analysts said the defections reflected how weak Cambodia’s opposition parties have become, farmers as well as GDP supporters and officials said they were hopeful Saing Koma’s appointment would lead to significant agricultural improvements. Before entering politics, Saing Koma was best known as the founder of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture (CEDAC) and his efforts to improve Cambodian agriculture earned him a Ramon Magsaysay Award.
Seng Van, 51, a GDP member in Kampot province, said he supported Saing Koma’s decision.
“When he works for the Ministry of Agriculture, he can help many farmers, related to agriculture sectors,” he said.
“I think that it is his right and there is not any impact to supporters,” Van said. “I am not angry because he believes that it will be a good thing to help farmers.”
Van said he was certain that Saing Koma would use his knowledge of agriculture to improve the livelihood of farmers, especially related to the market price of rice.
“If we compare our farmers with Thailand, we are still low skill,” Van said. He noted that in Thailand the government has numerous programs to aid farmers and financially support them, which Cambodia lacks.
Uon Sophal, a GDP commune councillor for Kampot’s Damdak Sokram, said he also supported Saing Koma’s decision, adding that there are opportunities for young people to learn from him.
“People who can do anything with freedom do not think about betrayal. This is a time when he has to go out and do this and have an assistant who is suitable to solve the rice issue,” he said.
“For me, the participation of Dr. Yang Saing Koma with the government for work is to help farmers about rice issues,” Sophal said.
Soeung Piseth, a member of the GDP’s steering committee member and its Kampong Chhnang provincial party executive working group, said that the defections of the two men are not a big concern to the party.
“I dare not to make any comments because it is his right, and the party policy is not upset about that, the party has its internal rule and we respect his opinion if he has thought it will benefit the agricultural sector,” he said.
“I do not go to prevent anything because doing politics is for the people, farmers and the whole nation,” Piseth said. “But what I will not agree to do is to bring the party to join the Cambodian People’s Party, because we are an independent party from the beginning,” he said.
“I am still doing my work. I don’t have any more comments. The departure of two individuals is a loss of resources of the party, but does not affect the party because there is a principle that there must be rules in the party,” he said.
But political analysts said the departure of Saing Koma will doubtless have an impact on the GDP.
“In reality, when the right person leaves, it very much impacts a party’s popularity,” he said analyst Em Sovannara.
“We are waiting to see because Cambodia’s politics have often changed a lot,” Sovannara said. He pointed out that GDP could join the ruling party in the future because they have the same vision.
However, he added, he is not optimistic that Saing Koma can tackle the current price of rice, pointing out that the CPP has failed to solve the problem despite being in power for years.
Social researcher and political analyst Meas Nee echoed Sovannara’s comments saying the loss of Saing Koma would certainly impact the GDP.
“When the GDP has lost one of its important leaders, the party will face difficulties,” he said.
“In our political culture there was [likely] prior negotiation between the ruling party leader [Hun Sen] and Yang Saing Koma, so I think that Mr. Saing Koma has thought before jumping to join the CPP,” Nee added.
Nee said that other politicians who had defected to the CPP always received positions in the government.
Sam Inn, secretary general at GDP, said that the party has not yet met to consider who will replace Saing Koma.
“We want the situation to be calmed and let each of us think and then we will meet together to resolve all issues,” he said.
Given the leader’s importance in the party, said Inn, there would doubtless be some negative impact on the GDP.
“I have monitored and asked some members, we have seen that the majority has supported his decision because they have thought he can use his knowledge to serve farmers through a joining with the government,” he said.
“As for myself I am very sorry that he has decided to join the Cambodian People’s Party but I do not object because he has his own reason that he wants to use his knowledge to help farmers who are facing a declining rice price.”
Saing Koma, could not be reached for comment but he told CamboJA on Sunday that he had submitted a letter to join the CPP to improve agriculture investment and address low rice production.
“A few days ago, I met with the Minister of Agriculture. I presented my project to the Minister of Agriculture (Mr. Dith Tina). He also told me to come to work on this project directly, and I replied that I agreed, and they asked [me] to prepare the letter,”
“I am confident that the layout of this new realistic policy is the same as my knowledge, skills, will and my work experience in agriculture.”
(Additional reporting by Ou Leangchhay)