Kheng scolds senior officials for seeking to keep power centralised

Interior Minister Sar Kheng chairs an event yesterday in Phnom Penh.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng chairs an event yesterday in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

In a frank rebuke of members of his own party, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng yesterday accused national leaders and ministers of impeding the process of decentralising Cambodia’s government out of a desire to maintain power for themselves.

“We do not hand power to them for human resource development at local levels. We need to delegate tasks, and if they can do something, just let them,” he said, speaking to an audience that included high-ranking city officials and some fellow ministers.

“Some who are institution leaders do not understand decentralisation … I’m sorry, I don’t mean to look down on them by saying this, but they pretend not to understand, or they understand but do not implement because they want power,” Kheng added.

The long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party has long struggled to decentralise the Kingdom’s bureaucracy, despite decades of trying. Observers have accused Prime Minister Hun Sen of wielding too much control over decision making, and the premier is prone to issuing unilateral diktats in public speeches that send ministries scrambling to comply.

The now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, meanwhile, garnered broad public support during the commune election season for a proposal to vastly increase local governments’ budgets and authority to undertake development projects.

Kheng yesterday went on to say that allowing local officials to participate in the process of governance more will enhance the nation’s reputation as a whole.

He also reminded authorities not to infringe on the rights of local governments, noting a recently passed sub-decree that gives provincial governors the right to propose nominees for provincial ministry positions.

“We need to implement according to this, not in other ways. This is the law . . . which we need to obey, and when we contradict this, it goes against the reform,” he said.

Each ministry has a provincial office that is under the authority of the national ministry, not the provincial government. October’s sub-decree was originally meant to give provincial governors the right to hire and dismiss staff, but was later watered down.

Kheng added that provincial authorities now have the right to “monitor” and influence their local ministerial offices.“The provincial level must know and take responsibility,” he said.

Self-exiled former CNRP President Sam Rainsy said decentralisation is impossible because Cambodia is a “dictatorship” built around Hun Sen’s personal rule.

The CNRP was recently dissolved over allegations it was “fomenting revolution” – a move that removed the only real competition to the CPP, and was almost universally condemned as a massive blow to Cambodian democracy.

“Any real decentralization in Cambodia requires a transition from the current communist-style one-party system to a system of liberal and pluralist democracy,” he said via email yesterday.

Rainsy added that any mention of decentralisation by government officials is just a “smokescreen”. Cambodian political analyst Meas Nee agreed that obstacles to decentralisation don’t originally stem from power hungry ministers, but rather “start from the top” with Hun Sen’s “patronage system”.

Noting that the “power of authority is centred in the hands of one person”, Nee said it would be “hard for any minister to make any decisions without consulting higher officials”.

At the core of the issue, Nee explained, is the inability to distinguish between the ruling party and the mechanisms of government, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the dissolution of the CNRP.