Government Nears Deadline On Ratanakkiri Airport Deal

Ratanakkiri province has been without a commercial airline service for more than a year. If the Asian Development Bank and the government fail to reach an agreement by the end of the month, the absence of an air link with the rest of the country will continue.

The airport at Banlung was previously served by just one commercial airline, PMT Air. Then, in the wake of the fatal crash of PMT Air flight U4 241 in Kampot province in June 2007, PMT withdrew from Ratanakkiri.

“No airline will invest in Ratana­kkiri if there’s no good airport there,” Ok Nida, senior project im­plementation officer at ADB, said by telephone Tuesday.

But despite planning for an airport expansion at Banlung since 2002, ADB has still not decided whether it will to finance the project, Ok Nida said.

The major stalling point is resettlement of those currently living around the laterite gravel runway, which is located right in the center of the provincial capital.

Under the expansion plan, the airport will add a new 1,800-meter runway, a new departure building, and a new air-traffic control tower. These additions will displace an estimated 42 families who live near the airport, which currently serves only chartered flights.

ADB’s Social Safeguard officer, Ok Sokha, confirmed Tuesday that resettlement compensation is to be paid by the government, not ADB.

“ADB requires the government to pay compensation to the villagers at market price,” she said.

Ly Vin, a deputy governor who is in charge of land disputes for Ban­lung district, said the government has hired a private consultant to determine a fair resettlement deal with the families.

“We are collecting [information] and measuring the villagers’ land to make data for the consultant, so we can pay compensation at market price,” Ly Vin said.

But time is running out.

According to Ok Nida of ADB, the government needs to submit the resettlement plan by the end of the month, or the long-awaited deal is off.

“If the resettlement plan is not acceptable to us, we will not fund it,” he added.

Em Sotheara, who is responsible for the airport resettlement question at an Inter-Ministerial Resettle­ment Committee, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Nget Pitou, director of the Pro­vincial Tourism Department, said Tuesday that he looks forward to the benefits the proposed airport expansion could bring.

“Most tourists complain about spending a long time traveling on the road up to Ratanakkiri,” Nget Pitou said.

Driving from Phnom Penh to Ratanakkiri takes about 12 hours, whereas a flight takes about 45 minutes.

“If the airport is finished, tourism would increase seven times over last year,” when the province hosted about 70,000 tourists, he said.

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