More than 500 people gathered at City Hall on Thursday for the first-ever open meeting of municipal officials and the people they serve.
The meeting was conceived by Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara as a way to create direct contact between officials and city residents, in order to disseminate information, foster trust and get feedback on government activities.
For the first time, people can criticize their city government in person and make requests for services.
“I need people to participate in my work, to share their experiences and criticize me when I do something wrong,” Chea Sophara said. “I don’t want to be admired. I need criticism to correct my mistakes.”
Many residents spoke up to ask questions or make suggestions. “I want you to construct a [new] road for my village, because [the old one] was destroyed by trucks,” a Tuol Sangke villager told Chea Sophara.
While many praised the governor, there was plenty of criticism, most based on specific concerns rather than broad policies. Nearly every plea came in the form of, “Why are you ignoring my village?” Several people complained of rampant crime and criminals going unpunished in the corrupt court system.
The governor brought up his own concerns, including his signature city-beautification initiative. As a step toward attracting tourists to Phnom Penh in addition to Siem Reap, he said, he plans to restore all the streets and create a park and event center on the Chroy Changva peninsula.
He also vowed to wipe out the notorious Svay Pak brothel district in Russei Keo district. “I must get it out of my city,” he said, turning to the Svay Pak commune chief. “If you can’t do it, you must be corrupt.”
Prostitution, he said, destroys traditional Cambodian culture and values, and gives Cambodia a bad reputation abroad. “When I have been overseas, I have heard foreigners talking about Cambodia as a place to go for sex,” he said.
Other promises included improving access to clean water, increasing security and banning the use of preservatives and flavor-enhancing chemicals in fruits and vegetables sold at city markets.
Responding to residents’ input, Chea Sophara said he would try to find solutions for everyone. The key, he said, is cultural preservation.
All the political parties can agree that Cambodian culture must be protected from dying out or being corrupted, he said.
He also counseled patience. “We must do everything step by step,” he said.