In a Whistle-Stop Tour, Sar Kheng Pushes for Better Local Governance Ahead of Elections

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Interior Minister Sar Kheng is greeted in Ratanakiri province, in a photo posted to his Facebook page on October 12.
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With Covid-19 restrictions lifting across the country, Interior Minister Sar Kheng crisscrossed the country this week to attend six inauguration ceremonies for new provincial governors.

The six stops, some only for a few hours, followed a similar pattern: A suit-clad Kheng arrived at the provincial hall, did the performative handing over of the provincial seal, then proceeded to give a speech before zooming off to the next inauguration ceremony.

The senior CPP leader spoke about the administration of the provinces and why governors were being shuffled, hit out at the opposition, and asked officials to prepare for the upcoming commune elections. He also made news while in Pursat.

“Soon we will transfer the party leaders in Phnom Penh and Preah Sihanouk, where Say Chhum will speak at the transfer ceremony,” the interior minister said. 

Kheng did not clarify who would be replaced in the two large provinces, with party spokesperson Sok Eysan saying he was unaware of what the minister was talking about.

The government in September announced that six governors were being shuffled around, one new governor was being installed and another governor was moved to the Interior Ministry. Kheng had attended a seventh inauguration ceremony for the new Stung Treng governor on October 4.

Kheng was in Pursat on Thursday when he said the moving around of governors was necessitated by outgoing governor Mao Thonin’s completion of two mandates in the province. Thonin has been made the new governor of Kampot. He said governors moving around did not indicate any sort of hierarchy, because all provinces were equally important and all needed governance and development.

He stressed that the swapping of governors was unrelated to their performance, and was more an administrative measure.

“It is important for those governors to develop their province. With public services​, they should be responsible and accountable with the people and the government.”

Provincial governors, such as Mondulkiri’s Svay Sam Eang, have had to deal with a slew of allegations of corruption and ineffective governance. Mondulkiri has seen numerous accusations of land disputes involving government officials, one of which resulted in the removal of a district governor. Other officials involved in these allegations have so far not been prosecuted, and more than half have retained their jobs. Sam Eang has been made the new governor of Stung Treng.

In Battambang, where governor Nguon Rattanak was moved to Kampong Thom, a local businessman and deputy governor were arrested for allegedly owning more than 5,000 hectares of land, a case that is being investigated by the Anti-Corruption Unit.

Kheng said that provincial governors and department directors had the power to resolve disputes outside the courts and they should exercise this power, heaping praise on former Pursat governor Thonin’s ability to resolve local issues. Thonin had held forums directly with members of the public to hear about their problems. In a popular TikTok video from his inauguration this week as Kampot governor, Thonin could be heard saying, “Imagine if your land had been taken. How would you feel?”

“When they do not have a [strategy], the issues will build up,” Kheng said. “So I request that the Pursat strategy has to be done and other provinces can do it. It would be good. … And the district governor and commune chief can do it when the issues are related to them.”

The message was clearly received, as the Kampot provincial police announced they would conduct visits to 93 communes in the province to understand and solve problems faced by residents and to make it safe for everyone. The commune elections are less than nine months away.

Provincial, or subnational, administration was on the minister’s mind ahead of the 2022 commune elections. The CPP currently controls all but one commune chief position in the country, assuming control of all the commune chief positions vacated by the CNRP when it was dissolved in 2017.

Kheng said the party had built bench strength at the commune level and had lower-level officials capable of working with their provincial counterparts, unlike in 2002 when elections for commune chiefs was introduced. It was incumbent on governors to recognize this talent, he said. 

“These days we have a lot of capable people who can work for the commune. But this depends on the governor or deputy governor. We need to find people who have the ability to complete the tasks,” Kheng said.

The minister didn’t miss a chance to hit out at the opposition CNRP, alleging they would attempt to “destroy” the elections. He provided little evidence or detail for his allegations.

“I would like to ask the working group as well as the administration at all levels to support and participate in the preparation and success of the NEC voter list, including the security of public order, and to not be disturbed by the opposition who are trying to destroy the election,” the interior minister said in Kampot on Wednesday. 

The interior minister’s trip was heavy on trying to improve local governance, but those affected by rights violations weren’t convinced. Nhem Ty is part of 30 families embroiled in a land dispute in Kampot’s Chhouk district.

While he was happy to hear that incoming governor Thonin was known among CPP circles for solving disputes, he was not very hopeful. Provincial officials had repeatedly told the families they could meet the old governor, Cheav Tay, but would never give them an appointment.

“If we get a clear date, then we can meet other people to go there but we do not know yet whether [the governor] can solve our problem and we need to wait and see,” Ty said. 

Pech Pisey, who heads accountability watchdog Transparency International Cambodia, said that it was encouraging if the new Kampot governor could help people with their disputes but that it wasn’t ideal to solve all disputes out of court and that courts should be able to deliver justice.

“We also encourage the judicial system, both at the national and local level, to have the capability to provide justice for people. It should be based on the rule of law to guarantee that the Ministry of Justice and our judicial system provides justice for all kinds of cases and for people of all status, big or small.”

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