With provincial, municipal and district council elections coming up in May, the government has been redrawing borders in Phnom Penh and other key areas such as Preah Sihanouk province in order to facilitate population growth and economic development, but others argue the move was made to provide more positions to CPP party members.
Sitting on a motorbike outside a market in Boeng Keng Kang commune, Oem Thai smiles at the prospect that something good is coming his way.
Today he is waiting for his wife as she shops for groceries for this week’s Chinese New Year celebrations.
The market has been around for as long as Mr Thai can remember. However, things are changing quickly and Boeng Keng Kang commune will soon be reclassified as a district.
“It’s really good – it’s what people want,” Mr Thai says. “From now on, every process will go smoothly, quickly and effectively.”
The National Election Committee will hold its third provincial, municipal and district council elections on May 26. All 11,572 commune councillors are expected to cast ballots for 559 seats up for grabs in Phnom Penh and the 24 provinces, while there are 3,555 seats up for grabs in all districts and cities across the Kingdom.
King Norodom Sihamoni last month signed off on an amendment to the law on municipal, provincial and district council elections, effectively increasing the number of local council seats.
The law stated that number of councillors in Phnom Penh is set at no more than 27, while provincial councillors have been increased from 15 to 29 and district councillors have been increased from 11 to 21.
Following the amendment, Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a sub-decree approving the reclassification of several communes in Phnom Penh to create the two new districts of Boeng Keng Kang and Kambol.
Mr Thai says as of right now, he has to visit commune and district offices in order to process legal documents, such as birth certificates for his grandchildren.
He notes that processing legal documents can take too long due to a lack of civil servants at commune and district offices.
“Civil servants will have less people to manage. Like it or not it’s a positive change,” Mr Thai says. “The number of civil servants has to be proportionate to the number of people living in an area.”
Ken Chen, a 39-year-old market vendor at the Boeng Keng Kang market, doesn’t want to criticise the pace of processing documents, but it’s apparent he is not satisfied with the services offered.
“I do not want to criticise them, but their work is slow,” Mr Chen says. “I think if the government can close loopholes, processing documents will be more convenient. People will also be happy with the authorities.”
However, others see the changes as politically motivated and as a way for the ruling CPP to expand its power.
Kin Phea, director-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s international relations institute, says the creation of the new administrations was based on geography, population and economic growth, but was also politically motivated and pushed through ahead of the May elections.
“It has to do with the technicality of the upcoming council elections,” Mr Phea says. “I think they have a plan and they are going to do it.”
“The rate of our economic development has to be facilitated, population and geography have to be synchronised and we need to be able to manage easily,” he adds, noting the CPP wants to be able to provide more positions to their local members.
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, says though the move can be beneficial, the cost is going to be substantial.
“Given that most adult people migrate to work in cities, there is no urgent need to increase communes or districts, especially when the local and sub-national governments already have plenty of staff and officers on the payroll,” Mr Kol says. “I think there are some political benefits for doing this, for instance for better control over people and to give more jobs to party members.”
“Alternatively, administrations just need to ensure current officials work harder to ensure effectiveness and efficiency because more workers do not guarantee productivity and better services if the officials do not perform their best,” he adds.
Olympic commune chief Pea Horn is aware his commune will soon fall under the new Boeng Keng Kang district, but says he doesn’t know when the designation will take effect.
“It is a decision from senior officials, but I am in support of it,” he says. “I would like to help our people – we would like our office to be closer to people’s homes so that we can improve public services.”
Mr Horn says his commune office processes about 300 families in need of ID cards, residential certificates, birth certificates and recommendation letters.
“We currently have 12 communes and soon it will be divided into two separate districts,” he says. “It means the new districts will have six communes each. You can see how responsible we are, I expect our residents will approve of this positive thing.”
In the most recent sub-decree, Mr Hun Sen also approved the reclassification of Preah Sihanouk’s Koh Rong commune, which is made of several islands in the Gulf of Thailand, as a city. He also approved the creation of a new district in Kampong Thom province, made out of eight communes, called Taing Kork.
Lay Thai, Koh Rong Samloem village chief, says he is prepared for Koh Rong city and new developments it will bring.
“I strongly support the creation of the new Koh Rong city because it will help develop the surrounding islands,” Mr Thai says. “From now on, my place will be well known to people – we are living in peace and experiencing economic development.”
He notes that most residents here work in the tourism and fishing industries.
“I hope that after we have the new city, we will be able to attract national and international visitors,” Mr Thai says, noting that infrastructure and property development should be focused on. “Our people’s livelihood is about to get better.”
Prak Sam Oeun, director-general of the Interior Ministry’s general administration department, says the creation of the new districts and city was necessary to ensure optimal sub-national management.
“Firstly, the ministry noticed a growth in population in those two areas,” Mr Sam Oeun says. “Secondly, the creation will help improve access to public services. And thirdly, it will help security forces address social issues.”
San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, does not agree with the expansions.
“I think the move is politically motivated rather than to improve public service delivery,” he says. “It is not the right time to expand the number of districts while the existing ones have not been well strengthened and work with constrained budgets.”