Co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng on Monday defended the newly elected commune councils against criticisms that they do not understand their duties, saying that the councils have made significant achievements in their first year in office.
“In their first year, the commune councilors have achieved positive results,” Sar Kheng said on Monday, speaking at the first annual congress for commune officials at the Ministry of Interior.
He added that the government wants to build up democracy through decentralization, but the full process will take time.
“In order to achieve [decentralization and democracy], we need a more appropriate period of time,” Sar Kheng said.
During the 2002 commune elections, five to 11 councilors were elected in each of the country’s 1,621 communes. The new councils—praised at the time as a real step in handing over power to the grassroots level—have since been criticized by observers.
Recently, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections published a survey stating that the commune councilors do not understand their duties, don’t communicate well with their constituents and do not have adequate resources.
Despite this, Ministry of Interior officials praised the commune elections during the meeting on Monday.
“In general for the first year, commune councilors have managed the infrastructure and basic material to work, even though their abilities and resources are limited,” said Sak Setha, director-general of the ministry’s General Administration Department. “Although commune councilors’ abilities are not equal, through their training they can understand the fundamental knowledge to govern the communes and other daily work.”
Sak Setha added that the 11,261 commune councilors and 1,621 commune clerks received training from the National Committee for Supporting the Communes on how to manage their administrations and finances, as well as draw master plans for development of the communes.
Whether or not the commune officials can implement those plans with the current budget available is still a concern for the government, Sak Setha said.
The commune finances for the first year of operations are based on the national budget, and the national budget is so small that the commune councils often cannot fund development programs in their communes, he acknowledged. In the Comfrel survey,
83 percent of the councilors said they did not have enough funds to operate the commune.
“Most of the commune councilors don’t have their own commune offices and lack furniture and telephones,” Sak Setha said.
To overcome some of these problems, Sar Kheng recommended that all the commune councilors form a National Commune Association, which would provide legal services to the commune councils and offer commune officials a place to discuss issues.