A Ministry of Interior directive requiring provincial approval for work done on commune halls prompted a thinly veiled threat from a ministry spokesman yesterday that a popular opposition commune chief could be arrested if she didn’t comply.
Since the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s unprecedented wins in nearly 500 communes during the June local elections, several newly elected commune chiefs have found themselves at odds over various projects with district and provincial bureaucracies stacked by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
The conflicts – as well as public remarks by CPP officials and leaked internal memos – have raised questions as to whether the ruling party is actively trying to sabotage opposition efforts at local development.
The ministry’s statement yesterday told authorities to ensure that any construction or renovations to commune halls proceed only after approval from provincial officials, whether the projects used the state budget or donated funds.
“Before the construction of commune halls, the commune council has to get the permission from provincial and municipal administration via town and district administrations,” the statement reads.
Pressed for details about the reason for the statement, ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak was quick to accuse “some commune chiefs” of constructing or refurbishing commune halls to burnish their party’s credentials.
“They want to raise the money to build the commune hall, and after the construction is completed, they invite their party officials to inaugurate their commune hall,” he said.
He then went on to accuse an unnamed commune chief in Battambang as an example of someone who was using her own funds to run the commune hall while projecting it as her and her party’s accomplishment.
“We see that in Battambang, there is an example. Whatever they do in Battambang, it is made to seem as only she has done it,” he said, making an apparent reference to CNRP O’Char Commune Chief Sin Rozeth.
The popular commune chief has had prior run-ins with local authorities. She was pulled up by provincial officials for accidentally failing to charge villagers for commune services, and was more recently chastised by the Battambang town governor for building a drainage system that was allegedly not up to specification. Officials, however, ultimately let the project proceed after seeing it enjoyed broad local support.
However, Sopheak yesterday seemed to escalate the rhetoric by threatening to send Rozeth to jail like her “leader” – a reference to CNRP President Kem Sokha, who is currently in a Tbong Khmum province prison on widely condemned “treason” charges.
“Both leader and follower will go to jail. The case has not been prosecuted yet, and now the follower wants be in jail?” he added.
Rozeth yesterday denied Sopheak’s accusations, saying she had never portrayed any of her improvements to the commune hall as some kind of largesse from the CNRP.
She added that she had to use her own funds to run the commune hall in lieu of the “zero riel” funding she had received from the ministry.
“I am the commune chief and I have used my money only for some equipment, such as a fan, to pay the electric costs, and to arrange the [commune] meetings,” she said.
She called Sopheak’s threat “intimidation of local authorities”, and pointed out that it was the CPP that routinely touted its local-level contributions as party achievements.
It is common for CPP working groups and government-aligned tycoons to donate funds for the upkeep of communes and districts, often in events disseminated on social media with much fanfare.
While initially reluctant to discuss these donations, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan did admit that the ruling party also used outside contributions to fund local projects, but claimed the party never claimed credit for it.
“The commune hall does not belong to any one party because it belongs to the government. Even though the CPP has built them in the past, but the CPP has never used the party’s name [to claim credit],” he said.
Political commentator Meas Nee said it was acceptable for the ministry to pull up errant commune chiefs and local officials for legitimate mistakes, but noted that the circumstances of Rozeth’s alleged infraction did not warrant such a threat or reaction.
“This is not the language the government must use,” he said. “This is not an issue to handcuff [someone].”