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Council's teething troubles

Council's teething troubles

Sy Ton said she has encountered numerous problems since taking office as the commune

council chief for Phnom Penh's Sangkat Psar Thmei 1 on March 6. Before the new system

of councils was established, she felt she had more determination to do well in her

position, which she had held since 1998.

"My work of governing has changed," she said. "Now if I want to fix

the commune's sewage system, I must consult with other members of the commune council

first. But this is the decentralization policy and we have to follow it."

Koul Panha, executive director at local NGO Comfrel, agreed there had been some minor

problems since the new councils took office. He is less worried about former chiefs

such as Ton adjusting to the new system; of greater concern are new regulations drafted

by the Ministry of Interior (MoI), the ministry to which all councils must report.

He feels the rules could affect freedom of speech and result in the unfair dismissals

of members of the commune councils.

"There have as yet been no major problems. Some people are happy, others are

grumbling," said Panha. "But I am worried that some provisions of the MoI's

internal regulations could be used to manipulate the councils, particularly if the

members do not understand the law."

Another problem, Panha said, was that the regulations stipulated that a motion to

place a problem on the council agenda needed the active support of between 60 and100

people. That was asking too much, because the Cambodian people were not familiar

with such a system.

The SRP held a press conference March 12 to highlight some of the problems that six

of its newly-elected commune chiefs have encountered since taking office. Among the

complaints were of a lack of cooperation from former commune officials, difficulties

with the commune clerks, and unpaid bills.

The Sam Rainsy Party commune chief in Boeung Salang said the clerk appointed to his

commune often acts as though he is the boss.

"The clerk's job is to assist me, but he seems to want to control me,"

said Touch Meng Srieng. "Whenever there is a meeting, I have to inform him.

If I want to do anything, the clerk makes a report [to the MoI]. I am very disappointed."

Ly Chheng Ky, SRP chief of Teuk Thla commune, said she ran into a lack of cooperation.

"There is nothing in the office," she said. "No water, no electricity.

The office is in complete disorder."

Panha added that one chapter of the regulations states council members could face

dismissal simply for arguing in the council meetings. Another concern was the rights

and responsibilities of the MoI-appointed commune clerks, whose job it is to report

back to the ministry on the workings of the councils. Nhem Vanthorn, head of anti-corruption

body KHRACO, shared that concern.

"The clerk could have a negative effect on the freedom of the commune council,"

said Vanthorn. "It is his duty to report the mistakes of council members to

the MoI minister."

Panha concluded by saying that the commune councils are not allowed to have contact

with international and local NGOs when discussing development issues. That, he said,

was to go through the provincial governors. NGOs had told him they wanted to deal

with decision-makers at the grassroots level when deciding on policies at the local

level.

"This could make the members of the councils hesitant in expressing their opinions,"

he said. "The MoI should not put these regulations into practice before consultation

with those at the grassroots."

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