PITY the authorities whose task it is to transform the northern half of Siem Reap
Province into a new entity - Oddar Meanchey Province.
MP Son Chhay of the Sam Rainsy Party
The new province comprises some of the most war-ravaged areas of Cambodia, including
Samrong and O Smach, both Funcinpec resistance bases during post-coup fighting in
1997 and 1998, and the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng.
With few facilities or services, a semi-transient population, ravaged natural resources,
rampant malaria and a pernicious landmine problem, officials in the area are facing
a weighty challenge.
And it seems that even those who should know most about the setting up of the province
are not quite au fait with the procedure. MP Son Chhay, for example.
"Who am I?" he wonders, as he studies an official list of provinces. "Am
I MP for Siem Reap, or MP for Oddar Meanchey? Apparently I am both - you can write
that - Son Chhay was surprised to discover he was now MP for both provinces but had
not been officially informed."
Meanwhile, over in the ministry of interior, Than Sina, Secretary of State, is laughing
about an anecdote concerning the new governor's house in Oddar Meanchey. With no
telecommunications, no car, and not even a suitable house for the incoming governor,
the Interior Ministry was surprised to get a message from him that he had found a
suitable house in the provincial capital of Samrong, "for only 500 per month".
Furious, the ministry demanded to know how he could request such an outrageous rental
price in such a poor province - until they realized he meant 500 baht ($13).
But beneath the laughter there is a serious business to be carried out here. The
government has to rebuild and create an entire province "starting from scratch,"
in the words of Sina.
Officials cite several reasons for the formation of the new province. The main one
seems to be ease of administration - Siem Reap is currently too large to govern effectively
- but there is also a need for specialized attention to the redevelopment of Oddar
Meanchey, and for the area to develop at its own pace rather than being overshadowed
by Siem Reap.
"The area [Oddar Meanchey] itself is different from the lowlands [of Siem Reap]
- it needs more care and effort put into it," said Son Chhay. He noted that
historically, attention to the Siem Reap province has always centered around Route
6 and Siem Reap itself, "but by creating a separate province we can put more
effort into generating [a new infrastructure] and can concentrate on that area."
"There are lots of ex-resistance fighters in that area," said Than Sina,
"they want to settle and develop at their own pace. If it stays part of Siem
Reap it would be hard to keep up with the major developments and advancements there."
Officials admit that the pace is likely to be a slow one. Even finding suitable men
and women to administer the developments will be tricky, as much of the population
has been transient because of the continued fighting in the area. Many Oddar Meanchey
residents have been living over the border in Thai camps, and finding expertise is
a weary task.
"We'll try to look at people from the area who know the region and its geography
first," said Sina, "but the Ministry of Interior will have to provide staff
and help with the reorganization."
Although its most recent incarnation only became official last month, King Norodom
Sihanouk signed the decree to create the province in 1995.
Oddar Meanchey had already existed as a province from 1962 until 1970 during the
Sankum Reastr Niyum regime. During following regimes it became known as "Anook
Khaet" or "small province", and existed in an administrative no-man's-land
for many years, hovering somewhere between province and district as successive regimes
altered its status. Since 1993, it has officially been part of Siem Reap province.
"When the Khmer Rouge took control in 1975, Oddar Meanchey was the last province
to stay in the control of the government," remembers Son Chhay. "Many in
Oddar Meanchey area managed to escape the Khmer Rouge by fleeing over the border.
In fact, I met many former soldiers from Oddar Meanchey when I was in Boston [US]."
For Funcinpec, the area has a special historical significance. The district of Banteay
Ampil was the seat of the fledgling party, with the first party congress in 1982
held in the province. It has remained a base for Funcinpec ever since, a fact reflected
in the choice of new governor, Chamroeun Cheath, a seasoned Funcinpec general who
was key to the party's resistance efforts during 1997 and 1998.
"He is well respected by the people there," said Than Sina. "He's
basically the right person at the right time."
For Governor Cheath, a major test will be how he handles the potentially lucrative
border trade with the Thais, which provides both opportunities and pitfalls for development.
Trade with the Thais has been a regular feature of life in the area for many years,
and many Khmers in the area have families living over the border in the Thai province
of Surin. The only substantial road in Oddar Meanchey stretches from the capital
Samrong to the Thai border - a legacy of many years' illegal logging.
"We have to be careful here," warned Chhay. "It's a remote area - we
don't want to give the government a free hand to smuggle."
"Look at Pailin - lots of smuggling goes on for Y Chhean. I believe it will
be the same in Oddar Meanchey. It's sad because so much national revenue is lost
Than Sina is also concerned about the depletion of natural resources there.
"When I was in Pailin I met with Ieng Vuth [deputy governor], and told him about
my great concern about the natural resources devastation there," said Sina.
"He told me that they had no choice - that they needed money. He also said that
things were even worse in Anlong Veng - that they had diverted the course of the
river to get at the precious stones lodged in the ground."
One major issue of concern for the government, which would provide the first real
test of Oddar Meanchey's new status, is the coming commune elections.
Is there any hope that the province could be ready to deal with the elections by
the beginning of next year?
"We have no choice but to do what we can," said Sina. "A lot depends
on whether the finished election law requires the process to be set up region-by-region,
or whether they will do the whole country at once. If it is province-by-province,
I think [Oddar Meanchey] will be the last to be ready."
Chhay is working on a slightly different timescale: "If the government is prepared
to spend money to allow an access road to the area - 10 to 15 million dollars - then
the province can be up and running in five years."
Facts at a glance
- Population: 39,161
- Districts: five: Banteay Ampil, Samrong, Chong Kal, Anlong Veng, Trapang Prasat.
- Capital: Samraong
- Sub districts: 17
- Villages: 87
- Borders: Siem Reap to the south, Banteay Meanchey to the west, Preah Vihear to
the east, and Thailand to the north.
- Number of population over the age of 18: 16,133
- Governor: Chamrouen Cheath (Funcinpec)
- 1st deputy governor: Mao Tim (CPP)
- 2nd deputy governor: Moeung Kel (Funcinpec)
- 3rd deputy governor: Yim Thin (CPP)