Details of Agreement for New Jet Still Elusive

Details on the government’s acquisition of a new private airliner remained elusive on Monday with officials saying that only Prime Minister Hun Sen and State Secretariat of Civil Aviation Secretary of State Mao Havanall are privy to the agreement to procure the 150-seat French-made Airbus A320.

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap—who last week said the government had purchased the estimated $91.5 million plane, then quickly retracted his comments the following day saying the plane was on lease—on Monday said that only Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Havanall knew the specifics of the deal.

“Samdech Hun Sen is the prime minister…and has the right to decide to lease it. I know that the Secretary of State of Civil Aviation [Mr. Havanall] is in charge of the plane,” Mr. Yeap said.

“They know the details,” he said.

“The prime minister appointed Excellency Havanall. He is going to sign that lease deal,” said Coun­cil of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan.

Mr. Siphan added that Mr. Havanall is the only official with intimate knowledge of the agreement, though he stressed that the Airbus, which made its inaugural flight on Thursday, was leased rather than purchased. “Only Havanall knows,” he said.

Mr. Havanall has not responded to requests for comment since Thursday.

Mr. Siphan said that during a Council of Ministers meeting on Friday, Mr. Hun Sen said the plane would be used exclusively by five individuals: the prime minister, Senate President Chea Sim, National Assembly President Heng Samrin, King Norodom Sihamoni and Queen Mother Norodom Monineath.

Mr. Siphan said that despite being unable to estimate the cost to the country of acquiring an Airbus exclusively for senior officials, he was confident that the deal, of which he could not provide details, would prove both “convenient” and “economical.”

“We get a fixed-lease price. That one includes everything,” he said.

“It’s very economical; it will save the government [money],” he said, adding that currently, senior government officials spend between $2.5 million and $3 million per year to fly on national carrier Cambodia Angkor Air or other commercial airlines. The annual cost of operating the new Airbus, Mr. Siphan said, will be less.

“We can afford that,” he said.

Members of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) said the government should continue to fly on Angkor Air, and questioned whether a plane exclusively for the use of a select few officials would save the state money.

“I recommend the government use the commercial plane like they have done before,” SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said.

“Cancel the contract, [there is] no need to proceed with the contract.”

Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said that the senior leaders’ Airbus, despite the criticism by the political opposition, would not be thought of negatively by the public.

“My guess is for many people, it would be acceptable,” he said. “Ostentatious spending…that is the culture of the country these days.”

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