Two years ago, Phnom Penh municipal health officials were still offering reassurances that the Chamkar Mon referral hospital, a free public women’s and children’s health facility that had been closed for three years, would reopen after renovations.
But according to the construction company currently developing the site, the building has been sold to a private company and will instead open as a bank by the end of this month.
“It will be a bank,” said a man who identified himself as the owner of EO, an electrical and refurbishment company putting the finishing touches on the building. Speaking at the firm’s Phnom Penh headquarters last month, the Chinese businessman declined to give his name because he said it could not be spelled in English or Khmer.
He also declined to name the company that would operate the bank.
“Why do you want to know the name? We never ask the name of the people who hire our company,” he said before quickly exiting the office and driving away.
According to construction site foreman Sok Vuthy, EO is almost finished with its work, and the bank should be ready to operate by the end of the month.
After three years of inactivity, the plot on the corner of Norodom Boulevard and Street 294 in Chamkar Mon district was listed for sale in May 2014 for $12.1 million, though health officials insisted the site would still be home to a hospital.
“We have cooperated with a private company to renovate the electrical and drainage systems to ensure the hospital is working well,” Sok Sokhun, director of the municipal health department, said in 2014.
In recent weeks, municipal, district and commune officials have all declined to comment on the building or what it will be used for, as has Health Minister Mam Bunheng.
“Don’t ask about this,” Mr. Bunheng said following the ministry’s annual meeting this week.
Mr. Sokhun, the municipal health director, referred questions to the Ministry of Finance, which he said now controlled the plot. Ministry spokesmen could not be reached.
Although the swapping and sale of prime pieces of state-owned land has become common practice, Prime Minister Hun Sen has promised that hospitals and schools are safe.
“Please your excellencies, try to maintain current locations of schools and hospitals of all levels,” the premier said in 2007. “Absolutely do not swap locations of any of these.”
Chan Theary, executive director of reproductive and child health organization Racha—which once provided training for the nurses and doctors at the hospital—said the Chamkar Mon center was one of just two hospitals in the city that provided free health care specifically for women and children.
“I thought they would upgrade it to be a new hospital. Most women have no place to go,” she said, adding that the only other facility is the National Center for Maternal and Child Health Care, commonly referred to as the “Japanese Hospital.”
Min Puthchethavann, a doctor who worked at the Chamkar Mon referral hospital but moved to Phnom Penh Municipal Referral Hospital after its closure, said the majority of staff had given up hope that the hospital would reopen and had moved on to work at other clinics.
“Now we cannot protest because most of the staff agreed to receive compensation, and even if we continued protesting we wouldn’t succeed,” he said.
Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy