Chea Sophara officially was promoted this weekend to become Phnom Penh’s governor, but Funcinpec officials were mum on why their party had given away the high-profile post to the CPP.
Already the most influential city official as the capital’s first deputy governor, Chea Sophara has now formally become the boss of Phnom Penh, governing some
1 million citizens, many who live in poverty.
Funcinpec was given the post as part of the deal that broke 1998’s post-election deadlock. But Funcinpec President Norodom Ranariddh kept the position vacant for nearly a year, until agreeing with prime minister and CPP Vice President Hun Sen this weekend to put Chea Sophara in the slot.
“I am happy, and surprised in a sense, that the leaders and the people support me in this position,” said Chea Sophara, 47, a CPP central committee member.
Reducing robberies, kidnappings and traffic congestion were top priorities, Chea Sophara said. He said he had not been formally notified of the promotion, which was proposed in separate letters by Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh to King Norodom Sihanouk.
It was unclear what Funcinpec gained in allowing a CPP member to take the post.
Funcinpec Secretary-General Toh Lah declined to comment Sunday on the move.
Thach Bunroeun, chief of cabinet for the prince, said Sunday the appointment of Chea Sophara was likely part of an agreement in which Funcinpec would receive three Phnom Penh deputy governor positions in exchange for Chea Sophara’s governorship.
One Funcinpec steering committee member and top government official said conceding the prominent position to the CPP was not a popular move among members of Funcinpec. “Right now they [party members] are not quite happy,” said the official, asking not to be named.
He said the decision to allow Chea Sophara to control the city was made months ago. “I had already conceded this was a dead issue….There are some good points and some bad points in the appointment, but since we have no choice, Chea Sophara is the best choice,” he said.
However, Thach Bunroeun denied party members were unhappy with Prince Ranariddh’s decision. “Funcinpec is a real democratic party. Therefore, we always have these different feelings. But the majority will follow the decision made by the leader… [The prince] is the only person who can make the coalition work for the people of Cambodia.”
Serey Kosal, a deputy secretary general of Funcinpec, said the prince led the party to the decision. “Funcinpec gave the position to him,” said Serey Kosal, a former general and provincial governor.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith, a CPP central committee member, said Sunday the appointment was not solely political but also based on competence. “It would be difficult for Funcinpec party members to be in charge and have control of Phnom Penh,” Khieu Kanharith said, noting also that Funcinpec could not agree on who to place in the position.
“The governor of Phnom Penh was Funcinpec’s quota but Funcinpec could not agree on who would be mayor,” he said.
Chea Sophara was best suited to the job because he is familiar with the position and the lower level officials in the city, Khieu Kanharith said. “To be mayor he must know the mechanisms of the city and all the police chiefs, district and commune chiefs,” Khieu Kanharith said.
Chea Sophara, the father of four children, served the city as the first deputy governor since 1995 and was the district chief of Tuol Kok in northern Phnom Penh before that. He has led the recent crackdown against the trafficking of Chinese nationals through Cambodia to Western countries. “My millennium gift to the people of Phnom Penh as the new municipal governor will be a crackdown on kidnapping, robberies and reform of traffic jams in the city,” said Chea Sophara, adding ordinary people were already helping to improve the city.
“The people of Phnom Penh are helping the government by reforming their own houses. Especially by keeping the area in front of their own houses tidy,” Chea Sophara said.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)