Last month, Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara issued a simple directive reminding village, commune and district officials to report crimes as soon as they happen, with precise details of the case, to give police a better chance of catching suspects.
There was nothing remarkable in the statement, but now municipal leaders are taking heed. After two kidnappings last month, the governor sacked the chiefs of both communes where the crimes occurred, saying the men “did not care for their work.”
They were told they were being transferred to desk jobs at district headquarters, but it was clear the move was not a promotion—it was punishment for poor performance. They had become the first casualties in the governor’s call for more responsibility in the ranks of municipal leaders.
Their removal, say officials in both communes, was a warning. Replacing the old chiefs, said Keo Sakal, second deputy commune chief of Viel Vong, “looks rather good in order to provoke some longtime commune chiefs, who are busy with drinking and being away from the office, to come back and work harder.”
The governor’s recent efforts to clean up the city have been wide-ranging: he has removed vendors from the city’s main streets, deployed swarms of police to control the chaotic traffic and issued a long list of rules for motorbike and cyclo drivers. But the sacking of the commune chiefs is the governor’s first attempt to better the city by targeting the officials charged with protecting and assisting citizens.
The two removed commune chiefs say it is unrealistic for the governor to expect them to eradicate crime in their communes. The local police, they say, are underpaid and under equipped, while many of the groups who carry out kidnappings and robberies are well-equipped and sometimes are supported by military police or powerful officials.
“It’s a hard job,” said Im Yoeun, the former chief of the Tuol Svay Prey 1 commune.
The men were not removed from their posts solely because a kidnapping happened in their area. Rather, they did not report the crime promptly, violating the governor’s directive.
The first kidnapping happened in Tuol Svay Prey 1 on Jan 17, and the second in Viel Vong on Jan 20. By Jan 21, the commune chiefs were gone and their successors in place.
Buoy Kosal, former chief of Viel Vong commune, said the kidnapping happened on his day off. In Tuol Svay Prey 1, according to new commune chief Ly Pou and others, Im Yoeun did not report the kidnapping because he was in Svay Rieng province for a ceremony at the time, and had not told anyone he would be gone.
“They must report [crimes] immediately and stand by 24 hours a day,” Chea Sophara said.
Im Yoeun says he is happier in his new position. His title now is more prestigious, he said, with responsibility for transportation and public works in the Chamkar Mon district. Buoy Kosal said he is currently not working and has not been told what his new job will be with the district or when he should report to work.
Chea Sophara said both men “will be educated how to help people because they do not care about their jobs.”
In Buoy Kosal’s old office, his colleagues have taken his removal as a message that more needs to be done to cut down on crime. “He could not control security well, though he worked hard,” said Keo Sakal, the second deputy commune chief.
The problem, she said, is the commune is very large, with about 22,000 people, and is in a very busy area, making crime control difficult for the small police force. The commune is hampered by the low salaries of police officers, she said, with officers earning about 22,000 riel ($5.80) per month. This can make them hesitant to confront violent criminals, she said.
“If they die, nobody is responsible for their families,” she said. “They care about their families.”
To improve the situation, the Kim Hap Import-Export Company donates 50,000 riel per month to boost the officers’ salaries and pay for supplies. The commune now plans to solicit donations from area businesses.
Buoy Kosal’s replacement, 25-year-old Norng Thoeurn, said his top priority will be boosting security. Keo Sakal, the woman who is his deputy, said perhaps he will be able to reduce crime by 30 percent though will never be able to cut it completely.
Ly Pou has the same concern. “Cracking down on crime is a hard job for the local authority if government leaves this burden to us,” Ly Pou said. “It does not seem fair that they blame us and hold us responsible.”
Ly Pou also worries that if he cannot reduce crime in his commune, he too will be sacked. He said he would have rather kept his old job, as deputy commune chief of Boeung Keng Kang 3, where he spent 10 years building relationships with the residents.
Now, with the commune elections coming up, Ly Pou said, he needs to do something good for his new commune, to convince the residents to vote for him. Along with reducing crime the residents want him to reduce the flooding that sends sewage flowing through the streets. Both tasks, he said, are daunting.
When he has a chance he will visit residents and the village chiefs to hear their complaints. This will be welcome among residents of Tuol Svay Prey 1.
Im Yoeun was quick to enforce government directives, said a woman sitting at a street corner, chatting with friends, “but he never went to visit the people.
“I wish the new commune chief would come to visit door to door to get a proposal from the villagers about what they want or need,” she said. “I hope he will do something good for us.”