‘Reform or Die,’ Governor Tells City Officials

Phnom Penh officials should continue “deep reform” or the ruling party will lose support in upcoming elections, the city’s governor said on Tuesday at an annual City Hall meeting that critics said should not have been politicized.

“Reform or die,” governor Pa Socheatvong told his staff. “Once a society has stopped reforming, it dies. Even big countries like the U.S. need to reform.”

cam photo city hall
Municipal governor Pa Socheatvong speaks at City Hall’s annual meeting on Tuesday in Phnom Penh, in a photograph posted to the municipal government’s Facebook page.

In outlining the city’s top priorities in his “Action Plan 1-2-3,” Mr. Socheatvong said he hoped the CPP would make inroads with a skeptical electorate in commune elections slated for June and national elections next year.

“We will appease their anger to get their support,” he said. “If we get their support, we will all be proud of the capital. If we can’t, they will blame our shortcomings as we have already seen the historic warnings of voters in the 2013 election.”

The opposition CNRP won the popular vote in over 80 percent of the city’s communes in the 2013 national elections. However, having won the national vote, the CPP still appointed the city’s governor, police chief and other municipal officials.

Koul Panha, executive director of Comfrel, said that pitching CPP party strategy at a government meeting ran against the democratic tenets enshrined in Cambodia’s laws.

“The structure of Phnom Penh City Hall is to serve people rather than party policy,” he said.

But speaking to about 300 city officials on Tuesday, Mr. Socheatvong did not delineate between the CPP and City Hall, which, except for a smattering of opposition party commune chiefs, is staffed by ruling party loyalists.

“We have been better at providing public services,” he said, pointing to work the city had done in maintaining public order, developing infrastructure and preventing illegal construction.

“Now we are carrying out Action Plan 1-2-3,” he said. “First, strengthening the deep reform of government that we are doing on maintaining lights, with our commitments to add 15,000 lamps, all lit up.”

Second, Mr. Socheatvong said, was minimizing the political fallout from land disputes at the former Boeng Kak lake and Borei Keila developments. In both cases, thousands of families were cleared to make way for high-end construction by CPP-connected businesses, sparking regular protests from evictees who say they were inadequately compensated.

“Boeng Kak is not a problem anymore. Borei Keila, a little bit left, but…it is not big problem anymore,” he said.

The city was “continuing to resolve” its last task in the plan: clearing the city of obstructions such as trash, sewage,and traffic.

In the days after the 2013 election, Prime Minister Hun Sen urged his party to consider its lukewarm performance as a message from an electorate hungry for reform, urging officials to cleanse themselves of disease accumulated over decades in power.

But political analyst Meas Ny said that the CPP and voters appeared to have different ideas about what constituted progress.

“They try to do something visible—infrastructure, or something else people can see,” he said. “But as long as they cannot bring justice or improve human rights conditions, trying to get people’s support is less likely.”

(Additional reporting by Ben Paviour)

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