Prominent opposition Commune Chief Sin Rozeth has been formally chastised by Battambang officials for seemingly minor violations – such as erroneously declaring certain services free and keeping her own records – in a case one analyst said reflected the harassment opposition officials have faced since the party made huge gains in the June local elections.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party commune chief from O’Char commune was first accused by Provincial Governor Chan Sophal in an August 1 letter of maintaining separate administrative records from the commune clerk; hiring two office assistants and a personal assistant without contracts; posting administrative documents on social media; wrongly instructing the commune clerk and discriminating against council members from others parties.
The second letter, sent two days later, accused the CNRP chief of giving out services for free that are meant to carry a nominal charge. While the issuance of birth, death and marriage certificates are free, other services, like the processing of land documents and applications for electricity and water hook-ups, have Interior Ministry-set fees.
The letter asked that Rozeth correct the prices displayed in the commune Hall – all showing zero charge for services – and pay the amount lost by provincial administration, or else face legal action.
“In case the O’Char commune chief is defiant and does not follow this directive, the provincial administration will take urgent and strict action against you according to the law,” the second letter read.
The 30-year-old Rozeth is one of a crop of young CNRP commune chiefs and was elected head of the commune on her second attempt in June. She conceded yesterday that she had mistakenly not charged citizens for some services last month but only because she did not want to burden the poor.
“We think they are poor and we cannot take money from them. But I accept that it is my mistake and I will pay those prices,” she said.
Responding to allegations that she kept records separate from those by the clerk, she explained she was trying to be safe by keeping her own notes, in addition to what she recognised were the commune clerk’s official records. The assistants, meanwhile, were volunteers, she added, going on to accuse the provincial governor of trying to threaten her.
“They came to threaten me that if I do anything carelessly, they will dissolve [the commune council] and have a new election for O’Char commune,” she said.
Provincial Governor Chan Sophal, a provincial hall spokesman and Battambang town Governor Sieng Emvunsy could not be reached for comment.
San Chhey, head of accountability group ANSA, recommended a mechanism to inform incoming commune chiefs of the dos and don’ts of the job, but added that authorities should be more vigilant for cases in which chiefs charged citizens fees greater than the ones prescribed – not in a case like Rozeth’s in which a chief failed to take enough. “Taking no money is just an administrative mistake, but taking more money is corruption,” he said.
Though the ruling Cambodian People’s Party maintained its control over the vast majority of the nation’s nearly 1,700 communes, it lost more communes than ever before to the CNRP, which took nearly 500.
After the elections some observers predicted newly minted opposition commune chiefs would face resistance from an entrenched CPP bureaucracy, and at the swearing in of a new Phnom Penh governor in June, Interior Minister Sar Kheng maintained that the CPP-controlled municipal executive had the authority to rescind decisions made by newly elected commune officials. Meanwhile, there has been a string of incidents in which opposition commune chiefs and councillors have found themselves at odds with their ruling party predecessors or chastised by ruling party officials.
A Phnom Penh commune chief was accused late last month of having illegally set up a donation box in his office, and following the swearing-in process after the elections there were multiple incidents in which ruling party members refused to vacate their offices for their CNRP successors.
Political commentator Meas Ny said the letters may have been intended as intimidation, especially in light of the other incidents. “These [CPP] commune chiefs have enjoyed the benefits for so long, they do not want to give them up,” he said.
He added that such obstruction could just be an initial reaction to power shifts that would hopefully subside, but that the onus had fallen on the CNRP chiefs to not make any missteps. “The CNRP has to be very careful, and if they go against the law a little they will face trouble,” he said.