Key provincial capitals including Siem Reap set to be re-named
The government unveiled a broad decentralization plan for Cambodia that involves
renaming key cities as well as adding five new layers to the structure of government.
The plan was revealed along with a draft law at a conference in Sihanoukville in
early December for more than 400 people, including the full Royal Government cabinet,
provincial governors, district governors as well as international donors and diplomats.
Minister of Interior (MoI) and deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, the driving force
behind the decentralization draft law, spoke at the opening of the conference. The
MoI was heavily represented. "It's their baby," said one attendee.
The government aims to have the draft law approved by the National Assembly before
the end of January 2008 and to begin implementation by 2009, said Sak Setha, director
general of administration at the Minister of Interior.
The changing of the names of cities is part of the overall plan, backed by Prime
Minister Hun Sen.
"Siem Reap will become Angkor City and Battambang will become Dambong Kror Ngung
City. We are just waiting for the law," Setha said.
The new law will establish "local councils," said Setha. "We used
to manage all the provinces as rural areas, but now the country is developing, the
services we provide must adapt. In the near future, we will need a more appropriate
system than what we have currently."
At the conference Hun Sen elaborated on the name changes. He wants Siem Reap to be
called "Krong Angkor," meaning Angkor City. Battambang would get the name
of Dambong Kror Ngung-it refers to the statue of the magic baton in the hands of
the protagonist of legendary Angkor-era story. The statue can be seen as you enter
the city of Battambang.
Siem Reap Governor Sou Phirin, who attended the conference, pointed out in an interview
that the new names of the cities will distinguish them from the province names.
"Pailin town will no longer exist. It will be Pailin province and Phnom Yat
City. Siem Reap town will become Angkor City in Siem Reap province," Phirin
Setha said the so called 64-page draft "Law on administration and management
of the Capital, Province, Municipality, District and Khan" creates five new
councils. The new councils are at the levels of: Capital, Province, Municipality,
District and Khan.
The changes will require a constitutional amendment. Article 145 of the constitution
will be amended to read as follows: "the territory of the Kingdom of Cambodia
is divided into the capital, provinces, municipalities, districts, khans, communes,
Article 145 currently says "the territory of the Kingdom of Cambodia is divided
into provinces and municipalities. Provinces are divided into districts and districts
are divided into communes. Municipalities are divided into khans and khans are divided
Sar Kheng said the success of Cambodia's commune councils inspired the government
to deepen its commitment to decentralization.
The commune councils, first elected in 2002, were the first effort to decentralize.
The second commune elections in April 2007 resulted in 1,621 elected commune councils
of which about two thirds are controlled by the CPP.
The donor community is giving the whole plan muted praise, but opposition lawmakers
said it is just another effort by the ruling CPP to consolidate its grip on power.
The critics said the draft proposal is a problem because the new councils will not
be elected by popular vote.
Citizens will not be able to vote for council members, only members of the local
commune council have the right to vote.
"This does not reflect a commitment to decentralization and democracy,"
said Muth Chantha, spokesman for the Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP).
"It is a long-term plan to consolidate power as the CPP understand that they
control 90 percent of the commune councils. [Decentralization reforms are] another
attempt to gain absolute control over power and to close the door for other political
parties to have any opportunity to take part in local administration."
"The government's proposal has nothing to do with real decentralization,"
opposition leader Sam Rainsy told the Post on December 13. "Economically and
politically it is a joke."
Rainsy said CPP wants to avoid direct elections because it is easier to buy and to
manipulate commune councilors-of whom there are only 13,000 in Cambodia-than try
and control eight million voters.
"It is more convenient for CPP to organize one direct election at commune council
level and use those results to control all the layers of state apparatus," he
Rainsy, as finance minister from 1992 to 1994, was instrumental in centralizing economic
control over the provinces-and was voted "Finance Minister of the Year"
by Asiamoney magazine in 1993.
The reaction of donors and civil society groups was mixed.
Nay Dina, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, who attended the
conference, called the draft law a "positive step forward."
Dina said decentralization should help the government provide better services to
rural areas more quickly because people in the provinces will be making more decisions
regarding their own needs.
"They are closer to the people and they know the situation on the ground,"
Dina said that direct elections would be more democratic, "but the argument
from the government is that the commune council is already elected by the people
and is representative-therefore, more elections would produce the same result."
Another official, who declined to be named, agreed with the opposition. "Cambodian
realities appear to be defined by the CPP need to keep power-their political aspirations,
desire for resources."
Another attendee called the whole plan a "missed opportunity."
"The government could have really introduced a greater level of citizen participation
but this is not going to contribute. It's underwhelming."
One official pointed out the Ministry of Interior, which has the department of rural
affairs buried inside it, holds conflicting roles in the plan because it appoints
all the district governors and also holds the chair of National Committee for Decentralization
and Deconcentration (NCDD).
At the conference the MoI specifically assured the district governors at the conference
that they would be removed from their positions.
Despite a last minute request for additional funding from donors, the conference
was largely paid for and organized by the government. It was not open to the media.