Koh Kong provincial governor Mithona Phuthong was the first woman to ever have been appointed to the top job in any province back in 2017. She is the daughter of a veteran politician who fought to liberate the country and extinguish the flames of war before they turned the entire nation into ashes.

During her tenure as Koh Kong governor, she has successfully managed the development of the province according to the government’s strategic plans and policies. She sat down with The Post’s reporter Nov Sivutha to discuss the ongoing development of Koh Kong and her future goals while in office.

What do you see as your biggest achievements thus far during your time as governor?

When I started out as provincial governor in June of 2017 the first thing on my agenda was to improve the quality of public service provision and I think we actually accomplished that quite rapidly and faster than even I expected.

My next goals were in areas which we’ve made a lot of progress on at this point – but there’s no quick-fix solution to them – and that’s developing the province’s economy in order to reduce poverty, raise living standards and improve the well-being of the average person living here.

That will take time, but we’ve made progress since 2017 by focusing the administration on using our provincial development budget to build-out the province’s infrastructure.

We’ve added or repaired over 600 km in total length of concrete, asphalt, gravel and DBST roads all over the province. And we built 32 new bridges as part of that.

My administration has tackled water related challenges – which are growing globally with climate change – right from the start by building 11 drainage systems covering nearly 4 km and digging three canals with each being about 4 km long. We also dug 31 pump-wells or reservoir ponds and made vital repairs to the province’s 70 km long saltwater dam.

What else? We built a port, four One Window Service Centres, a new Provincial Hall, four new commune administrative headquarters and we even found the time to build two new public gardens on top of all that. So we’ve been very busy and building non-stop really.

And we did all that with just the development budget of the provincial administration. There was also the development budgets of the ministries, specialised departments, and municipalities, districts and communes that were used to build and renovate infrastructure to provide public services according to people’s needs such as hospitals, health centres, health posts, schools and pagodas.

We incentivized the private sector to build more hotels, guesthouses, resorts and restaurants. All of the services are aimed at facilitating and raising the living standards of the people and making Koh Kong an attractive, beautiful and comfortable place to live or visit so that we can suitably live up to our moniker as the “Southwest Star” province.

That’s an impressive amount of building in just five years time. What further potential does Koh Kong province have today in terms of development with its current population? Any other big plans?

The geography of Koh Kong province gives it enormous potential in terms of developing eco-tourism. Koh Kong includes the plateau and the Cardamom Mountains, which are rich in biodiversity with many species of birds and mammals all living in incredibly beautiful natural habitat that includes waterfalls and beaches and other scenic landscapes.

There are five major biodiversity corridors in Koh Kong: Prek Koh Pao, Prek Tatai, Prek Trapeang Rung, Prek Andoung Teuk and Prek Sre Ambel. These are all areas of great beauty that are rich in natural resources like mangrove forests, bird sanctuaries and fisheries.

The coastal areas with beaches and views of the ocean stretch from the Cham Yeam border checkpoint to the border of Keo Phos commune in Preah Sihanouk province.

The Ministry of Environment has now granted development rights to 35 small-scale natural tourism enterprises in conservation areas and natural protected areas. Once tourism has fully recovered post-pandemic, I believe that all of these have the possibility of becoming very popular attractions.

You are the first woman ever appointed as a provincial governor in Cambodia. You’re also a relatively young person compared to some of the other governors now and in the past. Has that presented any difficulties for you?

As a provincial governor I take my responsibilities very seriously and I don’t shy away from working long hours. I’m very committed to the rule of law and respecting the laws and legal standards currently in force by not taking shortcuts with the work my administration does. It’s not always easy, but it’s the right way to do things.

At the same time, as a woman who is a mother and wife, I have to somehow find time to provide warmth and care to my family and actually I’d like to take a moment to thank my husband and my children for always supporting and encouraging me so that I can fulfil all of my duties and the leadership role I have been entrusted with.

You are the granddaughter of a legendary Cambodian politician, activist and military leader, Say Phuthong. What important lessons did you learn from him when you were growing up?

My grandfather, Say Phuthong, is an outstanding figure with historic achievements on behalf of the nation and the people of Koh Kong province. I learned a lot from him. With his children and grandchildren he always tried to cultivate ideals like patriotism, honesty, protecting the weak, expressing solidarity and staying disciplined.

My family and I have deep respect for his legacy it is an honour to have him as an ancestor. His leadership was brave and his decisions courageous. He was a big part of the struggle to gain independence from France and he inspired other youths to resist the French colonial authorities to the point where he was wanted by them and they were searching for him.

One story he told that I remember happened back in 1948 at a pagoda in Doung village. A big festival was held and a lot of people attended it. My grandfather and some other members of the resistance forces joined the festival and held a theatrical performance that called on the people to rise up against French-colonial rule.

To not only advocate that privately but to decide to do it up on stage publicly for as big an audience as possible? Well, like I said, his bravery was incredible.

Later on, he and all of the resistance forces in Kong Koh decided to join the Khmer Revolutionary People’s Party and fight the French soldiers and that went on until the French protectorate returned independence to Cambodia on November 9, 1953.

Another thing my grandfather was known for was refusing titles and ranks. They offered him a role in the [Cambodian People’s Party] but he declined it and instead volunteered as a military advisor to [Tea Banh] in Koh Kong because he could see that the Pol Pot regime had it all wrong and was headed for disaster and he especially opposed things like taking everyone’s private property for collective ownership.

He didn’t want any title, he honestly just wanted to meaningfully contribute to the important work being done with all his heart and strength.

My grandfather was a very analytical leader when it came to politics and also in war. Protecting the lives of the people and of the resistance forces was his main priority. He analysed the strategies Pol Pot was known to use and he and Tea Banh carefully established their own strategies to counter them to give an advantage to their forces in battle because he couldn’t bear to see any lives wasted by poor planning.

What message or advice do you have to encourage other women who wish to become a provincial governor like yourself?

According to the 2019 economic and social censuses, women make up of 52 per cent of the population. Of that number, only 20 per cent of women have held leadership positions at any level or in any sector, including me.

As for experience in leadership, whether national or sub-national institutions or with private sector companies, they always have clear administrative management structures and responsibilities in each area and understanding how those work will help your job go smoothly and you’ll avoid a lot of problems by knowing what everyone’s intended role is.

As a leader I try to set an example by following my own rules and heeding the advice I give to others when I’m making decisions because this demonstrates integrity and shows them that your ideas work when they are applied, which encourages people to follow your lead again and again whenever the opportunity arises.