The Apsara Authority admitted Thursday that millions of dollars it received in exchange for land leased to businessman Sok Kong for a hotel near Angkor Archaeological Park have not been paid to the Finance Ministry due to “a technical problem with accounting.”
CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay last month accused the authority of embezzling millions of dollars collected from ticket sales for the park, as well as improperly leasing the prime land to Mr. Kong for a reduced price that has yet to be paid.
Mr. Chhay said the 26-hectare plot in Siem Reap City’s Cultural and Tourism City was leased for 70 years to Mr. Kong’s firm for $9 million—a figure he described as “peanuts.” He also said the fee had not yet been paid.
In a statement signed by its director-general, Bun Narith, the Apsara Authority said Thursday that Mr. Kong’s Sokha Hotels Group had in fact paid for the land, but that the authority itself failed to pass the money along to the government.
“The fee for the land lease, which has not yet been paid to the national budget, has certainly not gone anywhere, meaning it is a technical problem with accounting, so the money will be paid to the state later,” the statement says.
The Apsara Authority statement does not explain where the money currently is, nor does it specify how much the lease cost. Mr. Chhay said last month that Mr. Narith told him the fee was $9 million.
The statement nevertheless rejects Mr. Chhay’s claim that the land was leased to Mr. Kong for a reduced price due to his connections to Deputy Prime Minister Sok An, who is in charge of the Apsara Authority.
“This lease was not done with secrecy or without the participation of other institutions, because we announced it publicly according to national and international standards, especially with the support of Unesco and AFD [the French Development Agency],” the Apsara Authority said.
“There was the participation of international real estate specialists to determine the fee for the land lease.”
Mr. Narith could not be reached Thursday. Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, which Mr. An oversees, said that he considered the issue to be resolved.
“We have already made this written clarification, so if he doesn’t accept this, it’s up to him,” he said, adding that he did not know how much money was owed to the state.
Mr. Kong, who is ethnically Vietnamese but born in Cambodia, rose to wealth during the 1980s by operating an import-export business between Cambodia and Vietnam.
In the 1990s, the Sokimex ptroleum company became the center of his portfolio as he secured a number of government contracts. In the late 1990s, Mr. Kong’s company then acquired the rights to collect ticket revenue for Angkor park, of which it is entitled to retain 15 percent.
Despite admitting problems with the lease to Mr. Kong, Thursday’s Apsara Authority statement also hit back at Mr. Chhay for his claim that the official figures for ticket sales do not make sense given the number of tourist arrivals.
Mr. Chhay believes the Apsara Authority is hiding millions collected from ticket sales for entry to Angkor park each year, and also misreporting sales of $40 three-day tickets as $20 one-day tickets.
The authority said official figures showing that 1.64 million tourists visited Angkor park in the first 10 months of last year, resulting in $43.4 million in revenue, are correct.
“His Excellency Son Chhay, a lawmaker from the CNRP, from time to time in the media still sticks to his mind by using hypocritical and characteristically political accusations to falsify the truth and exaggerate without any clear basis,” the statement says.
“He recently announced that annual revenue for 2014 amounted to $150 million with five million foreign tourists entering Angkor Wat. Then on January 2, he showed a new figure by announcing that at least three million foreign tourists entered Angkor Wat,” it says.
“At this point, the Apsara Authority notices his changing figures for revenue and the number of tourists who enter Angkor Wat, reflecting that His Excellency Son Chhay does not have any clear assertion of his conclusion,” the statement
Mr. Chhay could not be reached.