Phnom Penh Governor Leaves Behind Mixed Legacy

During his speech last week at the swearing-in ceremony of Phnom Penh’s new governor, Pa Socheatvong, Interior Minister Sar Kheng noted that managing Cambodia’s capital is by no means an easy task.

“I believe Phnom Penh is difficult to manage because there are a lot of problems,” he said.

Phnom Penh’s former governor, Kep Chuktema, came to the end of his 10-year stint as the city’s governor on Friday and is now running as a parliamentary candidate in Phnom Penh for July’s national elections.

While critics of Mr. Chuktema note his failure to settle high-profile land disputes and struggle to deal with the city’s expanding population, it is impossible not to notice some of Mr. Chuktema’s accomplishments.

The smattering of skyscrapers rising out of central Phnom Penh are a testament to the vast commercial development that has taken place during Mr. Chuk­tema’s 10 years in office—the longest term of any Phnom Penh governor since the fall of the Khmer Rouge.

The city’s most iconic boulevards have been resurfaced, children’s parks have been installed and the riverside area has been totally refurbished thanks to foreign funding. Under Mr. Chuktema, two sky bridges have been fully constructed, connections to clean water have increased and business has boomed.

During his final speech as governor on Friday, Mr. Chuktema noted that improvements to infrastructure had been a priority of his administration.

When asked last week to name his greatest accomplishments as governor, Mr. Chuktema said that raising the global profile of Phnom Penh would be his lasting legacy and also noted the political contribution he has made to the ruling CPP in his time in office.

“My most important accomplishments were taking my city [Phnom Penh] to the international stage,” he wrote in a text message, referring to numerous awards won while in office, including the 2011 Asean Environment Sustainable City Award.

“And my CPP party gained 7 out of 12 seats in Phnom Penh,” Mr. Chuktema added, referring to the significant gains his party has made in the National Assembly since he became governor in 2003 when the CPP had only four seats.

But while many of Mr. Chuk­tema’s achievements are highly visible, the city has also seen some of its most prized natural resources squandered and many of its residents marginalized under his tenure, according to Nora Lindstrom, the program manager at urban rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut.

“[O]verall, in the last decade, [Mr. Chuktema’s] tenure has overseen modest but uncoordinated infrastructure improvements set against increased isolation and forcible displacement of the urban poor,” Ms. Lindstrom said, noting that since 2003, about 100,000 Phnom Penh residents have been displaced to relocation sites in and around Phnom Penh, where access to employment, education, health care and clean water is often limited.

“In sum, we have seen unregulated urbanization that has benefited a small strata of society and in­creased spatial inequality. Phnom Penh today is more gridlocked, less green and less equitable than ten years ago,” she added.

In 2007, City Hall announced that it had leased 133 hectares of land surrounding and including Boeng Kak for almost $80 million to Shukaku Inc., a company owned by CPP senator Lao Meng Khin. The forced evictions that followed have given rise to the most high-profile land dispute in the country, as landless protesters from the Boeng Kak community have taken to the streets on an almost daily basis to demonstrate against what they say is collusion between City Hall and Shukaku in illegally usurping their land without appropriate compensation.

Boeng Kak is among numerous forced evictions undertaken by the administration of Mr. Chuktema. Residents from the Dey Krahorm and Borei Keila communities, two other eviction sites in Phnom Penh, had violent clashes with authorities as they were being evicted, and have continued to demonstrate against the unfair compensation and poor conditions at relocation sites.

Still, Mr. Chuktema’s focus on major construction projects and the beautification of Phnom Penh has attracted much needed investment, according to Nuon Rithy, the managing director of Bonna Realty, one of the city’s largest real estate firms.

“During the last 10 years under the leadership of Mr. Chuktema, we have seen construction consistent with the government’s policy to attract investors to Phnom Penh, and also in line with the investment policy of the Council for Develop­ment of Cambodia,” Mr. Rithy said.

“If we take a look at the city’s development in this past ten years, Phnom Penh has many satellite cities…many sky bridges, high rise buildings, modern res­taurants, hotels, and so on,” he said, adding that under Mr. Chuk­tema almost all of the city’s streets have been properly paved.

Others, however, say the mu­nicipality over the past 10 years has failed to tackle the rate at which the population is growing. According to Khem Ley, a socioeconomic researcher at the Advance Research Consultant Team, an independent consultancy, Phnom Penh’s population is growing at a rate of almost 7.5 percent a year.

“In the last 10 years, we have seen development, but no emphasis on how to move people to the outskirts,” Mr. Ley said, noting that construction has been concentrated in the center of the city and little effort has been made to improve areas outside the city in order to make them more livable and conducive to doing business.

As a symptom of the overpopulation of central Phnom Penh, City Hall noted in its 2012 annual report that there were now more than 105,000 people living in slums, or “informal settlements” in the city, up from 85,807 at the start of 2012.

“Everybody recognizes the importance of infrastructure, but they don’t concentrate on democracy or human rights among vulnerable and poor people,” Mr. Ley said.

In March, Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed concern for the flailing state of Phnom Penh’s infrastructure during a meeting with the visiting mayor of Paris. He said the city’s expansion had also led to electricity shortages, traffic jams, trash problems and an inadequate water supply system.

During his tenure Mr. Chuktema has made numerous efforts to install public transport. But to date, little progress has been made in implementing a functioning public transportation system in the city. In February, Mr. Chuktema said South Korean company City Trans Cambodia would begin operating a much-talked about public bus system by as early as the end of 2013.

The biggest single disaster during Mr. Chuktema’s term as governor was the stampede on Koh Pich bridge in November 2010 in which 347 people died. Although Mr. Hun Sen said at the time that it was the greatest tragedy in Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge, and ordered a government inquiry into the cause of the stampede, no one has ever been held to account for the deaths.

Amid calls for the resignation of Mr. Chuktema and then-chief of police Touch Naruth from opposition politicians and civil society groups, Mr. Hun Sen announced one week after the stampede that no government officials would be punished.

Although rights groups say crime figures in Phnom Penh are vastly under-reported, statistics from the Ministry of Interior show that Phnom Penh has be­come a much safer place under the administration of Mr. Chuk­tema. In 2012, the total number of crimes—both misdemean­ors and felonies—went down again by 15 percent, according to official figures.

The report also states, however, that homicides and weapon use had actually increased over the course of the year.

Pong Savrith, deputy municipal police chief, said that Mr. Chuk­tema had made significant efforts to cooperate with various police departments in curbing crime in the city.

“We have placed a strong focus on drugs, kidnapping and armed robbery, because those are the things that people are most afraid of,” said Mr. Savrith.

But it was not only because of his public successes that Mr. Chuktema was able to remain in office longer than any of his predecessors, according to independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay.

In contrast to Chea Sophara, the previous governor of Phnom Penh, who achieved widespread popularity during his time in office from 1998 to 2003, Mr. Chuktema was more of a “corporate” figure who kept a purposefully low profile as he furthered the interests of the CPP and its allies in the private sector, Mr. Mong Hay said.

“He’s been able to control people around the city in terms of demonstrations and protests. And then he has been able to help move forward with the many projects being built by both tycoons and other powerful people,” Mr. Mong Hay said.

(Additional reporting by Chin Chan)

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