Chea Sophara Creating a New Image for City

Ten years from now, Governor Chea Sophara would like Phnom Penh to be a mini-Singapore—with­out the skyscrapers.

Orderly and clean, with good water and lots of cool, green parks. Traffic that obeys the laws of physics. Sidewalks reserved for pedestrians, and shady, paved streets that never flood.

He knows he’s got a long way to go.

But Chea Sophara and Phnom Penh have come a long way, too, since he vaulted into the governorship in 1999 after four years as deputy governor. He has planted 8,000 trees along major boulevards, with another 4,000 to come.

A major water project is burrowing under Monivong Boule­vard, bringing drinking water to the southern part of the city. The $12 million project, funded by a World Bank loan and a Japanese grant, will also bring water from Street 70 to Pochen­tong Airport, and from Charles de Gaulle Boulevard to Stung Mean­chey commune.

Bulldozers rumble on both sides of the Bassac River, creating riverfront parks.

Roads are being paved, and sidewalks cleared of vendors. In the offing are improvements to the city’s dikes and sewage system; he hopes one day to relocate the last of the city’s 40,000 rem­aining squatters.

Many buildings along the city’s main roads got a new paint job this year, with Chea Sophara’s order to paint all structures yellow in time for the Khmer New Year in April. The governor said yellow is the symbol of development.

He says it’s not right that Phnom Penh is still in such bad shape, so long after the fighting stopped. It is past time for the  people who built Angkor to rebuild their capital city, he says.

Nagging them to do it is not the job he would have chosen, but it’s the one he has for now.

“It is a difficult job,” he said, with no trace of a smile. “It is the hot seat, eh?”

Although he was appointed governor two years ago, Chea Sophara has essentially been in charge of the city since 1998, when he was first deputy governor and the governor position was vacant until he filled it.

Over the years, he has solidified his rule with an iron fist philosophy. When he says “jump,” the only thing he expects an underling to say is, “How high?”

He’s currently being sued for slapping a policeman he thought was acting like a cowboy. The officer and his crew had been spotted driving through Phnom Penh with AK-47s drawn, protecting a shipment of currency headed for the provinces.

Asked later why he hit the man, Chea Sophara said he was offering him “advice.”

A few months back, he had a dispute with prominent lawyer Benson Samay, who had built a wall at his home that Chea Sophara felt encroached on city property along Norodom Boulevard.

The city told the lawyer to take down the wall. When he didn’t, the governor sent a demolition crew who knocked it down and used the rubble as landfill in Chea Sophara’s new waterfront park.

He has crossed swords with multi-million-dollar operations like Ariston Snd Bhd, the Malaysian company that runs the Naga Floating Casino and plans to build a $100 million hotel-casino in Phnom Penh.

Chea Sophara has said the hotel is welcome, but not the casino.

He’s also fighting a $40 million plan—approved by top government officials—to develop Olympic Stadium into a shopping and entertainment complex, saying the city needs green space and recreational facilities more.

He’s constantly looking for ways to create parks in his crowded, dusty city. When a foreign investor delayed developing a choice piece of land near the Cambodiana Hotel, Chea Sophara seized it—and turned it into a garden.

The rich and powerful are not his only targets, however. Neighborhood by neighborhood, he is clearing the city of squatters. When a large squatter village off Sothearos Boulevard burned down on May 25, the city moved up plans to build a park on the site.

Work has already started on the park. The city says the site, not far from the burned-out hulk of the Bassac Theater, used to be a public park, and will be part of an entertainment district when the theater is refurbished.

He says the goal is to shift squatters to small homes on the city outskirts near the garment factories, where they can find work or rent rooms to workers.

But it doesn’t always work out that way. Some squatters say their new homes are too far from the city for them to make a living and lack basic necessities like a reliable water supply.

And in late 1999, hundreds of Vietnamese families living in a floating village near the Monivong Bridge were cut loose and towed down the Bassac River.

Chea Sophara said at the time the families were illegal immigrants and it was not up to the cash-strapped city government to find them new places to live. He later said some of the families may have had a legal right to stay in Cambodia.

As for the space being cleared along the riverbanks for the new parks, Nhem Saran, director of the city’s Department of Public Works & Transport, says the work is proceeding on schedule.

Critics have questioned whether the city should be removing a silt island at the intersection of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers, for fear of problems when the rivers flood this fall.

“The island will be gone before the flood, and the banks will be covered with concrete” as they are on the west side of the Tonle Sap, in front of the Royal Palace, he said.

The other main project this year is improving traffic control, with the help of the Japanese International Cooperation Agency.

Down the road, Chea Sophara envisions a city expanding to the west, with better housing, no more squatters, and light industry providing jobs for the poor.

“The Cambodian people have much potential,” he said. “We just need to decide what we want to do for the future.”



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