Government Takes Shape in Oddar Meanchey

samraong district, Oddar Mean­chey province – A hot, dusty former government rice warehouse, where cobwebs look more at home than desks and file cabinets, has served as this new province’s administrative headquarters since April 1999.

That changes this week when Governor Lay Virak and other provincial officials move out of their “transitional office of Oddar Meanchey province,” as the sign out front says, and into a newly renovated, freshly painted office building that sits on the edge of rice fields.

In a province where the police office and the provincial departments of finance, education and information are in small, wooden houses rented from local families, the move is a significant step as provincial officials continue to develop a government infrastructure, authorities hope.

Three years ago, four of the five districts that make up the northwest province of Oddar Meanchey were governed by Siem Reap province. Samraong, now the provincial capital, was a small district town used as a base by CPP forces during their 1997 and 1998 battles against Fun­cinpec resistance fighters along the Thai border.

“Right now, we have peace. So we can separate the province again. It is easier for administration,” said Lay Virak, who served as a Funcinpec military commander during the factional fighting and was named governor six months ago.

Oddar Meanchey was first created as a province in 1962. The military was a large presence in those days because soldiers were sent here to train and guard the border, Third Deputy Governor Yim Thin said.

After the chaos of the 1970s, the province was combined with Siem Reap in the 1980s in a money-saving measure by the cash-strapped Heng Samrin government, Yim Thin said.

The process of reseparating Oddar Meanchey from Siem Reap province began in 1995, when a government decree split Samrong, Trapaing Prasat and Chong Kal districts, as well as the Khmer Rouge stronghold of Anlong Veng, away from Siem Reap. Another district along the Thai border, Banteay Ampil, was taken from Banteay Meanchey province.

The formation of the new province was widely seen at the time as a way to disassociate Siem Reap province and its Angkor temple tourist attractions from the stepped-up fighting then taking place between government soldiers and the Khmer Rouge.

But the decree wasn’t actually implemented until 1999, when a provincial governor was finally named and other officials began arriving in Samraong on the back of taxi trucks.

Since then, provincial officials and NGOs have worked to ship in supplies from Phnom Penh, arrange for road construction, electricity and phone service, and bring in government officials—many of whom came from Phnom Penh—to oversee the districts and the various provincial departments.

It hasn’t been easy. In Phnom Penh, Oddar Meanchey is “a bit of a forgotten province” and the province is often short of supplies and support from the central government, according to Dr Frances Daily, who manages the NGO Malteser Germany’s efforts to upgrade the provincial health care system.

Banteay Ampil district still does not have a district governor, she said. Malteser Germany officials are still discovering villages hidden in the jungle, away from roads, where returnees from Thai refugee camps live in squalor.

There are 224 villages and 129,255 people in Oddar Meanchey, according to an August 2000 survey. Many of those people live in isolated areas, “have been displaced again and again and have very little knowledge of basic health issues,” Daily said.

Saddled with poor roads and a telephone system that requires a special antenna or a satellite phone, Samraong often seems more closely tied to Thailand than Cambodia. On weekends, taxis from the provincial capital are filled with people heading to the border to shop for goods at markets in Thailand’s Surin province.

The situation is improving. There is a new hospital and several smaller health centers. In the next year, the Ministry of Interior will fund the construction of two dozen new buildings to serve as provincial offices, according to provincial Department of Information official Sok Phirun.

The road from Siem Reap province through Samraong to the Thai border has been upgraded, and several other roads are under construction, including one that would link Anlong Veng with Samraong.


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