When Phnom Penh's Governor Chea Sophara recently presided over the televised dedication
of a new wing at municipal headquarters, he was feted like a Cambodian hero.
In an impressive example of vocal endurance the band kept up a 40 minute rendition
of a song in which Sophara's own name and honorific title -'Ek Udom Chea Sophara'
- was the chorus. Excellencies, dignitaries and others filed past with offerings
of huge floral bouquets.
The platform projected a clear image around the country; Sophara is Phnom Penh
and Phnom Penh is Sophara.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara - a controversial and charismatic figure at the reins of "his city"
It is an image on which the governor prides himself, peppering his conversation with
references to 'my city' and his unique ability to transform it.
"You can see how I am really committed to action," he says. "Before
[my governorship] the changes were only small."
Sophara has spent his entire career in local government working up from the lowest
level to presiding over the country's capital.
As a young man he dreamed of becoming a doctor, and traveled from Kampong Cham in
1970 to spend the pre-Khmer Rouge period in Phnom Penh studying medicine. By the
time he returned to Phnom Penh in 1979 that dream was long gone.
"At that time the government collected all the people who survived from Pol
Pot and persuaded them to work with the government."
His rise through the municipal ranks was capped when he eventually took over the
governorship in controversial circumstances in late 1999.
Despite Funcinpec winning the right to appoint Phnom Penh's governor, Sophara ended
up with the job. It proved to be a decisive moment in the decline of Funcinpec. The
appointment was consistently cited by party members as a principal reason for the
royalist party's poor showing in Phnom Penh during the 2002 commune elections. Sophara
admits that the appointment was surrounded by rumor.
"Some say 'Oh Chea Sophara gave $3 million for the governorship'. But it was
not like this," he says. "Up until now I've only been working for the government
so where would $3 million come from? If I had $3 million I would build something
"In discussions the Prime Minister and Prince Norodom Ranariddh reconsidered
who would be suitable to be governor. I've been working in the municipality since
1988 so everyone here is a witness to how I allocate funds and how I manage Phnom
Penh. If it's a good appointment then that is how it should be judged."
For a long time the prevailing view in Phnom Penh was that Sophara had one eye on
national politics. In local and international publications he was written about as
a possible future PM.
But now he is seen as lacking broad support in the CPP and content to remain where
he is. Challenging for the top job in Cambodia can be a risky endeavor.
For his part the 50-year-old admits that he has heard whispered suggestions that
he throw his hat in the ring, but shrugs off any suggestion that he could be Prime
Minister with a laugh. It is up to the party to determine his fate, he says.
"Now I am working for my boss. I'm working for the CPP and for Phnom Penh. In
the party they want me to be governor and to finish my job," he says.
Sophara maintains that he only knows his fate as far as July 27 next year, when the
general election will determine a new quota for Phnom Penh and the CPP will consider
whether to re-appoint him.
His only ambitions beyond the governorship are in the private sector because it is
"easier" and would give him time to vacation with his wife and four married
There are those both inside and outside the party who would like to see Sophara take
the retirement option. The controversial and charismatic governor has driven local
NGOs to distraction with his management style and ability to enact sudden and dramatic
change in 'his city'.
Most recently has been his plan to clear the city of street children, which drew
the ire of NGOs. But Sophara's strength is in his popularity and scapegoating the
poor is proving to be smart politics. The relatively more affluent Phnom Penhois
fear street people and squatters, and appreciate the efforts to 'clean' the city.
"Every month I meet around 500 people throughout the city and they raise a wide
range of issues, and some very positive issues for the municipality," he says.
Asked to name them, he says security comes in at number one.
"How to clear the streets of drug people, the sex workers and the human abuse
of the sex workers": these are the issues Sophara says are most often raised
in his frequent contact with city residents.
"Door by door I went to check what their ideas are and what they want. Then
[some] of those ideas become the Chea Sophara ideas," he says.
Some of those have come in for strong criticism. The hastily enacted sweep of street
children is one which Sophara defends.
"We try to send them to the new location and we are focusing on the education
of the poor children," he says. But the quality of relocation sites for fire
victims has also been criticized, with the policy denounced as arbitrary and ineffective.
"We have a real problem there," admits Sophara. "They don't have any
transportation and they can't find enough jobs or consistent income for the family.
I recognize this. But we have no choice and anyway it's better than staying at the
original place because that's public land and not safe. In one year there are two
or three fires."
He dismisses suggestions that the fires were part of a deliberate relocation strategy
as mere rumor. He says there is ample proof that the sequence of squatter fires last
year was a series of accidents.
Redevelopment of the area will bring further extension to Sophara's beloved riverfront.
At the moment he visits the current riverside construction work on a daily basis.
To extend the greenbelt he has negotiated a donation of land from all the private
title holders set to redevelop the fire sites.
Sophara is not deterred by stepping on toes: when he wants something done he does
it. When he decided that umbrella trees were clogging the capital's drains last year,
he had thousands of them removed in just three days. This year he has planted 30,000
new trees to replace them.
The vision he outlines for Phnom Penh is one where the city is safe, clean and well
preserved. High rise buildings are to be banished to a new district on the other
side of the Mekong.
However in making changes he remains conscious of next year's election and tries
to convince his detractors of his point of view.
"Sometimes people say I admire the job you do for the city, but you don't do
a good job for me," he says. That is why Sophara sends his staff out "almost
everyday" to explain unpalatable decisions, such as why their house is to be
demolished to widen a road.
A notable failure for the 'can do' man is the slow progress of the convention and
cultural center on Chruoy Changvar Peninsula. Squatters were cleared out, and what
some claimed was private land was absorbed to build a huge center for conferences,
cultural displays, weddings and restaurants.
It embodies the Sophara vision for his city, built in traditional Khmer style and
generating an income for the municipality to further his dream of financial autonomy.
But the showpiece is long overdue.
He blames central government for not releasing the funds to complete the building
but, keeping an eye to his carefully cultivated image for getting the job done, Sophara
promises that 'phase one' will be open before the election in mid-2003. After that,
he says, it will be "wait and see" time.
"It's up to my party," he says, "but go and check with the people:
some people they like me but in another district they don't."