New guidelines issued by the Ministry of Interior require commune councilors to receive permission from provincial and municipal governors before engaging in study tours, workshops or receiving any training from NGOs or other organizations, officials said on Sunday.
NGOs representatives involved in promoting decentralization in Cambodia—as the process of transferring local government decision-making responsibilities to commune councils is known—expressed dismay at the Interior Ministry order.
“This is bringing us back to the old system of central control,” said Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
Koul Panha said the purpose of decentralization is to give financial, political and administrative autonomy to the communes, something that the central government has been slow to do.
But lately, the slow-moving decentralization process has seen some progress in certain communes, which has caused concern for the government.
“I think some commune councils have started to make decisions and the authorities saw that and reacted,” Koul Phanha said of the Interior Ministry order dated June 24, but only now coming to public attention.
According to a copy of the order titled “Guidelines to Support the Commune-District,” the Interior Ministry takes issue with organizations and groups who implement projects without informing the authorities. “All invitations of provincial, city, district and commune council officials for a study tour, participation in any workshop, and other training activities both in-country and out of country, need to have permission from the city/provincial governors,” reads the letter, signed by co-Minister of Interior Prince Norodom Sirivudh and Interior Secretary of State Em Sam An.
The guidelines are to be followed “To ensure the sustainability of work and local stability and in order to implement the decentralization process in the kingdom successfully and smoothly.”
Kurt MacLeod, regional director for the NGO Pact Cambodia, said organizations working on decentralization issues will formulate a response to the order this week. “What this order does is shift power away from the commune councils to the provincial authorities to the detriment of the process of decentralization,” MacLeod said. “The government’s deconcentration and decentralization document endorses increased autonomy and decision-making powers for the commune councils and this order runs counter to that,” he said.
“There has to be a response, not just from civil society but from commune councilors,” he added.
Leng Vy, a director at the Interior Ministry’s department of local administration, denied on Sunday that the central government was doing a U-turn on decentralization.
“This is not to take control…the communes have many tasks and often they are invited to many workshops and seminars causing absences,” he said, adding that the government just wants to see more work being done at the commune level. “We need to be able to coordinate the activities of the communes,” he added.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said that the order was a violation of the rights of commune councilors who are elected officials and not employees of the Ministry of Interior. “We have encouraged our members on commune councils to ignore the order and receive as much training as they can so they can learn how to manage their communities,” he said.
Poy Loy, Sam Rainsy commune chief of Sorm Thom commune, O’Yadaw district, Ratanakkiri province, said seeking permission from the provincial level for meetings with NGOs or attending workshops would take too long.
“If any organization comes to my place I will decide by myself,” he said. Prum Sarath, Pailin commune chief and a CPP member, said he would follow the guidelines as Pailin municipality approves everything he decides in the first place.
“If you want to ask me to do anything, I have no right to make decisions, even though the commune has decentralization. Our decentralization is just to carry out what the upper level approves,” he said.
Yin Kim Han, a CPP chief of Bosknor commune in Chamkar Leu district, Kompong Cham province, said he too deferred to the wisdom of the government on all issues. “We have leaders so we must have permission from them,” Yin Kim Han said. “If the case is serious like a [Cambodian Center for Human Rights] forum by Kem Sokha, I have to ask the district for a decision,” he said.
“We are worried that there will be reactions of violence by the people because at this forum sometimes they say words that affect some people,” he said.