Admired far and wide in the Kingdom, former Phnom Penh governor Chea Sophara is no stranger to the complex game of juggling politics and fairness.
He governed the Kingdom’s capital with an iron fist between 1998 and 2003.
At the same time, he remained practical and benevolent.
Media have described him as a charismatic, yet controversial, man. He was once seen as a threat and too much of a rising star within the municipality, and was demoted in 2003 – to supposedly become the Cambodian Ambassador in Burma – due to his popularity with the people and his ability to get things done no matter the circumstances.
During his time as governor, he was undaunted in his endeavours to beautify and improve the conditions of the city. In 2002, he reportedly called for 30,000 new trees to be planted in replacement of problematic umbrella trees which he deemed to be clogging the city’s drains.
Vendors were allowed to set up stalls along the roads of Phsar Chas (Old Market) and continue selling till late in the evening, giving them the opportunity to earn more, but that leniency ceased along with the end of Sophara’s governance, according to Im Mab, a longtime Phsar Chas vendor.
30-year-old motodup rider and Boueng Kak Lake evictee, Suk Thoeun, recalls wistfully, “If Chea Sophara had remained in the position of governor, people in Boeung Kak would not have been evicted, and our family, along with thousands of other families, would still be able to live happily in Boeung Kak.”
Thoeun believes that Sophara would have fought hard for the rights of the people living and working in and around the Boeung Kak Lake area – once a hotbed for residential areas, businesses, embassies, hotels, restaurants and other local businesses.
60-year-old Kong Sangva, a former Phnom Penh City Hall official during the period that Sophara was the First Deputy governor from 1995 to 1998, says, “I’m not the only one who knew and was able to see Chea Sophara’s accomplishments when he was governor, such as [constructing] the park extending from in front of the royal palace to Phsar Chas.”
“The current park from the royal palace to Phsar Chas used to be a military storage site and a port for agriculture produce, but he had other plans and turned that into a public park for everyone,” Sangva adds.
His removal from the position of governor in 2003 caused a huge stir within some circles in the country, with Toul Kork’s then-governor, Klaing Huot, reportedly not attending Sophara’s removal ceremony out of respect. Huot went on to say that Sophara’s work in the city was never based on party affiliation; rather, he focused on the greater good for the people and the city.
Sophara ended up not being reassigned as the Cambodian Ambassador in Burma; rather, he became senior advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Now, H.E senior minister Chea Sophara is continuing where he left off in the capital. The Cabinet’s most recent reshuffling saw him replace former senior minister Im Chunn Lim as minister for the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (MLMUPC).
Having been in the position for just over a month, he has certainly hit the ground running.
Since taking office on April 5, Sophara has conducted ministerial crackdowns on illegal construction; particularly that of NagaWorld, which saw its current expansion encroaching onto public space.
The casino corporation has since been ordered – and obediently complied – to disassemble its porch shelter occupying the public space, and rebuild the pavement in front of NagaWorld that has spilled onto the public road.
Sophara’s words ring fierce in his official Facebook page, which he updates almost on a daily basis: “The moment the construction spills onto the street, it will be demolished to teach them a lesson.”
His warnings come in the wake of a slew of developments that continue being built either illegally or without proper approval, as previously outlined by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
At The Peak condominium’s groundbreaking launch on May 3, Sophara forewarned that if any construction violates standards, companies would reap the consequences.
“From this day forth, as a senior minister of the MLMUPC, I will work as efficiently as possible to prevent those developments from technical errors or violating the standard procedures,” he said.
On May 11, Sophara wrote an official letter informing of the reassignment of Siem Reap’s provincial land management department chief, Se Samut, which citizens and netizens were quick to suspect was actually a demotion due to corruption. Samut has since been assigned to work at the ministry in Phnom Penh, and remains unreachable for comment.
From visiting Memot district in Tboung Khmum province and discussing with its residents how to resolve water issues during the drought, to having talks with Tourism Minister Thong Khon and Environment Minister Say Samal to manage and develop the coastal parts of environmentally troubled Sihanoukville, Sophara appears to be relentless in his pursuit of reorganising and beautifying the Kingdom.
According to Pheung Sophorn, secretary of state for the MLMUPC, Sophara has ordered the elimination of bureaucracy in the ministry, and has approved over 100 pending projects previously lying idle in the general department of construction and land.
Seng Vannak, deputy director of Phnom Penh municipality’s department of urban planning, has only words of praise for the minister, whom he says did an unprecedented job as governor.
“Minister Sophara definitely has a lot of experience in urbanisation and development. Right now, we will have to wait and see how the developments under him will unfold, and I am glad to soon cooperate with someone who is full of passion and ambition for the city,” Vannak says.
Sophorn also expresses his utmost backing for the new minister of the MLMUPC, saying, “We support the senior minister’s policy as he used to be Phnom Penh’s governor. He works hard and is very thorough.”
“We will do whatever it takes to ensure that the city’s architecture and urbanisation will develop with transparency, sustainability, and modernity.”
Additional reporting by Siv Meng