The main thing that’s changed about the Choeung Ek “killing fields” memorial since it was leased to a private Japanese company more than two years ago is the trip there.
What was once a bumpy ride through Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district is now a smooth affair as Veng Sreng road and the turn off directly leading up to Choeung Ek have been paved and are in prime condition.
The new roads to Choeung Ek are thanks to the Tourism Ministry and an Asian Development Bank loan of more than $1 million, Tourism Minister Thong Khon said.
The memorial itself, however, has changed little since April 2005 when the Phnom Penh municipality granted the obscure JC Royal company exclusive rights to manage the site for a period of 30 years in exchange for a surprisingly paltry, yearly payment beginning at $15,000.
Guides and security guards at the memorial received crisp, new uniforms early on and a new, ornate yellow and white concrete gate and wall around the site was completed in March, said Ros Sophearavy, the memorial’s new deputy manager.
But other than that, not much has changed at the memorial where more than 15,000 men, women and children were executed and dumped in mass graves between the years 1975 and 1979.
“You can say that progress is moving slowly, but we have built some things. That is better than building nothing,” Ros Sophearavy said at her office Tuesday.
Plans are being developed for new gardens and gazebos on the 3-hectare site where visitors can unwind and reflect, she said, adding that there will also be a museum—draft designs of which show a modern, angular structure.
But the lack of progress thus far, it would seem, is not for lack of funds.
Ros Sophearavy said that 110,000 foreigners visited the site in 2006, each paying a $2 entry fee. Cambodians visit for free.
If correct, those figures indicate that Choeung Ek raised around $220,000 on ticket sales alone, not counting the $50 fee Ros Sophearavy said is charged for bringing commercial video cameras into the site.
After the payment of $15,000 that JC Royal agreed to give the municipality annually and taxes, which Ros Sophearavy said amounted to about $45,000 each year, the company had about $160,000 to work with.
Ros Sophearavy said those profits go to such things as the new perimeter wall, staff salaries and several charitable activities, including 50 university scholarships for impoverished students.
“It is a not-for-profit company,” she added.
Youk Chhang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said he thinks Choeung Ek speaks for itself and does not need a museum on the grounds to give it context.
“I thought Choeung Ek was perfectly presented before it was leased to the Japanese company,” he said. “A plan to beautify may have good intentions, but it is not what the memory is all about…. It’s a gravesite,” he said.
Design plans for the museum at Choeung Ek will be on display at Ek Design Group on Street 130, in Phnom Penh on Oct 10, said Ros Sophearavy adding that care will be taken to keep the developments suitably separated from the existing memorials.
A nearby restaurant, she added, is also in the works.