Kandal Commune Residents Still Lack ‘Voice’ of People

sa’ang district, Kandal province – Oun Own is having a bad year—but he would never ask his commune council for help.

“I am only a simple person,” the 39-year-old fisherman said. “People like me cannot complain to the commune chief. People like me cannot go to council meetings.”

They can—and should—but they don’t know it. According to the law that created the commune councils—elected for the first time six months ago—the councils’ meetings are open to everyone, and even the simplest villagers should be encouraged to add their input.

That, after all, was the point of the Feb 3 local elections: To improve public services by bringing transparent, elected government closer to the people.

But in Roka Khpuos commune, in Kandal’s Sa’ang district, a local government responsible for only a few thousand people and only six months old, fails to communicate with the people it’s supposed to serve.

Observers say the problem extends across the country. It’s now the chief glitch in the process of decentralization—the transfer of power and responsibility from central to local governments—said Puch Sothon of the Commune Council Support Project. “The question now is how to bring the voice of the people to the councils,” he said.

Oun Own and his wife Sok Phoeun, 36, say their livelihood has been all but eliminated this year by two factors: a dam on the Prek Tey stream that keeps the fish away, and people who bribe the police and illegally use electricity to fish.

“Last year I could earn 20,000 to 30,000 riel (about $5 to $7.50) per day,” Oun Own said. “This year, nothing.”

Other villagers say they have appealed to the council for help and received no reply. “I’ve made many proposals to the council,” said Kem Song, 68. “I want them to widen this path and dredge the Prek Ta stream so it doesn’t flood. But they never respond to our requests.”

Farmers like Kem Song have their own troubles. A broken dam, built under Pol Pot, prevents water from being stored for dry-season rice cultivation, while the Prek Tey dam makes the fields flood so badly that they can’t plant wet-season rice.

“We can’t even grow rice once a year,” said Kem Song’s wife Oun Taem, 50.

Asked where his village chief lives, Kem Song pointed down the road. “But he never helps us either,” he said. “He doesn’t represent us.”

Commune chief Chhoeung Chhor 48, is aware of his people’s problems. Like every villager in the commune, he says he wants to fix the Prek Tey dam.

The council is discussing it, he said. It is also discussing widening various oxcart paths. But it has no money; it is responsible for implementing a large road project on orders from higher levels of government and it has only been in existence for a few months.

Chhoeung Chhor says he has never posted notices, announced with loudspeakers or otherwise informed ordinary villagers about council meetings. Indeed, he would not allow just anyone to come.

“Each village is represented [at the meetings] by the village chief,” he said. “Also, village elders who people respect—they also come. But if too many people came, it would be noisy. Certain villagers have to be chosen.”

By law, commune meetings are open to everyone, said Sak Setha, a Minister of Interior official who is the government’s main decentralization administrator.

In addition, communes should have notice boards in their offices where they post advance notice of upcoming meetings and results of past meetings. No such board exists in Roka Khpuos.

Nearly every villager in the commune is angry that the council hasn’t yet developed Roka Khpuos. But Sak Setha said that’s a lot to ask from a six-month-old government.

“[Development] is a long way away,” he said.

But no one has told the villagers to be patient, so they remain convinced that the decentralization initiative of the Feb 3 elections was a failure, and many don’t trust local government any more than they did before February, when the commune chief was still a CPP appointee (but was also Chhoeung Chhor).

“The government deceived the people to get their votes, then ignored them,” said Yong Yuen, 59. “We are like children without parents. We live in poverty, and no one cares.”



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