Villagers living around the Choeung Ek killing fields said on Tuesday that they are angry and worried that the government is sacrificing their livelihood in order to turn the genocide memorial into a business monopoly.
Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema issued a directive Sept 30 banning all businesses and construction work within a 500-meter radius of the killing fields, for the stated purpose of preserving the natural tranquillity of the area.
“The municipality wants to collect all the money from the tourists,” said To Sary, 45, who operates a small shop along the access road to the site.
“That’s why they don’t allow us to do business,” he said.
Though he does sometimes sell bottled water and soft drinks to tourists visiting the killing fields, To Sary said most of his business involves selling gasoline from a hand-pumped barrel, drinks and other small goods to locals. He was disappointed to read the directive, which would mean quashing his plans to expand his home business into a 3-story operation.
To Sary said that the directive would also scare off property investors who have recently driven the price of land in the area to $30 per square meter.
Sroeung Chhruy, 63, whose noodle shop is further down the road from Choeung Ek, questioned the decision to extend the development-free zone to half a kilometer. Nothing happening at his shop would effect the tranquility of the memorial located a few hundred meters away, he said.
“The municipality should allow landowners the right to do whatever they want on their land,” Sroeung Chhruy said. “It would be difficult if I couldn’t run the business.”
Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said that although it is important to the preserve and develop Choeung Ek in a responsible manner, local villagers should be the first to benefit.
The Japanese firm JC Royal, which has exclusive rights to manage and develop Choeung Ek for 30 years, is currently putting together a master plan for site development.
“They need to bring the local people into the master plan,” Youk Chhang said. “People in that area have been living with the memorial for the past 25 years, and it is a part of their lives.”
Choeung Ek General Manager Chou Sok Ty said that JC Royal intends to plant some trees and build a small cinema and a concrete fence around the site. The souvenir shop in front of the site will be allowed to stay, he added.
Workers at the souvenir shop said they make monthly contributions to those who run the memorial but declined further comment.
Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mam Bun Neang said he did not know about the directive. Kep Chuktema could not be reached for comment.