Urban Revival: A Talk with Thong Khon, Mayor of Phnom Penh

This interview was conducted in December 1989 by a group of 11 Southeast Asian journalists visiting Cambodia on a tour sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and hosted by the Association of Cambodian Journalists. Evans Young, Quaker international affairs representative for the AFSC from 1986 to 1989, edited this interview.

Thong Khon is the mayor of Phnom Penh, president of the People's Revolutionary Committee of the Municipality, deputy member of the Party Committee and under-secretary of the party of the city. In the years before 1975 he studied to be a doctor. The deep compassion evident in his voice and eyes and his gentle, confident, and assuring manner make it easy to imagine that, but for the war, he would be most comfortable making the rounds at Calmette Hospital. Instead, he is busy day and night making sure that he capital city had adequate housing, decent schools, a steady supply of electricity, running water, and functioning sewers. His remarks in Khmer were translated into English by a colleague from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Question: I have noticed children on the streets without clothing. Are they orphans or homeless? Also, there are beggars. What are the social problems of Phnom Penh and how do you plan to solve them?

T.K.: After liberation we had many more problems than we do now. The majority of children in the city are not homeless. Some are without good clothes, but this does not mean they have no pants to wear. It is only that they do not choose to wear them at times.

We have not seen malnourished children lately. We have two nutrition centers specially for raising abandoned babies. They receive state aid and assistance from foreign humanitarian organizations.

We feel we have solved the problem of homelessness, although some difficulties still remain. The majority of the beggars in Phnom Penh come from the countryside. It is a particular problem now because of the drought.

How has housing been allotted since 1979?.

After 1979, only 30 percent of the people of Phnom Penh returned to the city; more than 70 percent of the city's inhabitants had been killed. The majority of the people now living in Phnom Penh are not those who used to live here before [the Khmer Rouge].

Our government did not declare any law of ownership in 1979, but in the last year we decided to provide title for the land and properties. Before the war, there were 120,000 houses in the city. At the time of liberation, there were only 40,000. At present, there are 136,000 families living in Phnom Penh. Each house therefore has, on average, three families.

People without houses in 1979 had to build them. Most were only thatched structures. Now we have decided to provide title to the land and houses ownership - that is why so many of our citizens are repairing and decorating their houses.

There are still many problems in carrying out the law of ownership. For examples, there may be problems when three families live in one house. If there are no conflicts, then it is all right for the three to own the house together. If they decide not to live with each other, then our housing committee will try to reach a compromise. The process is complicated, but since we decided to provide house ownership to our citizens, the situation has improved greatly, because people know that their homes are their own. ..TX.Are people permitted to sell their homes?

Yes, they may sell their houses to anyone. There is presently no restriction. The Housing Committee has only the right to allocate the housing to those citizens living in them. What they do after receiving title is their decision.

What system of accounting is used in the factories?

The majority of industries in Phnom Penh are under the authority of the Ministry of Industry. The city only controls small industrial enterprises. When these enterprises get old - especially those with old, obsolete equipment - we privatize them.

The government does not decide rental rates. That is up to the people. The same applies to investment. If a noodle factory, for example, has the money, it can invest in new production systems. We also plan to take some of the old factories and rent them out to private companies.

What achievements are you most proud of? What are your next tasks?

Our schools have been our most significant achievement. After liberation, there was only one teacher for our senior high schools. Now there are more than 500 who have completed their training for teaching. After liberation, there were only 200 secondary or junior high school teachers. Now there are 130,000. Every single child in Phnom Penh is attending primary school.

After liberation, I myself had no sandals to wear. This was true of the whole people, too. Our health was bad, we were all very skinny. Now we have shelter and food, and nearly 100 percent of the families have at least one bicycle.

As to our future plans, the most pressing problem at present is to improve our water, electricity, and sewerage systems. We also need to construct new housing, and we have plans to enlarge the city.

Before the war, there were only three water supply plants in Phnom Penh. After liberation, only one was in operation and most of its machinery had been removed. Pol Pot took the pumps away from the city for use in the rice fields. But after liberation, with timely assistance from Ho Chi Minh City, we repaired the plant. Now in one factory we have six pumping machines in operation, and we plan to restore a second plant.

As for the supply and distribution of water in the city, Pol Pot destroyed all the maps of the city water system. And in the three years and 80 days of the Pol Pot regime, the water system was not in operation. As a consequence, the pipes in the system rusted out.

According to our plan, we will repair all the big pipes soon. The small pipes, which bring water to the homes, will be up to the owners to repair. We must therefore have a supply of pipes and equipment available to sell to the owners.

Are the bicycles subsidized?.

Most are owned by the people themselves. In the markets, a bicycle costs around 3,200 riels (US $ 14.50). A good Thai bicycle costs about 10,000 riels (US $ 45.50). Tires and inner tubes are not a problem since the city produces them. We even export some to Thailand.

Would you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was a medical student and had studied for five years when the city was evacuated in 1975. Pol Pot killed 18 members of my family. Only my elder sister, my mother, and I survived. When I left Phnom Penh, I was single nut I was married under Pol Pot, in a wedding ceremony for 80 couples. I have not been able to return to my medical studies since returning to Phnom Penh.

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CSQ Issue:

14-3 Cambodia

September 1990