Sitting vacant on the Chroy Changva peninsula, at the confluence of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers, is an unfinished building with a long history and an uncertain future.
The stalled construction of the Chroy Changva hall has been heralded in recent years as a future site to hold conferences and to showcase various exhibits.
But as of yet, the facility remains in limbo, as municipal and national government officials haggle over the rights to develop the valuable riverfront property.
Despite insufficient funding from the Ministry of Tourism, Governor Kep Chuktema vowed earlier this year to finish the construction project, which was started in 2001 by former governor Chea Sophara. The Ministry of Tourism had control of the land and invested $3 million in the project because it was planning to build a pavilion for last January’s Asean Tourism Forum.
But municipal officials said last week that a tentative private real estate deal brokered by Kep Chuktema may undermine government plans to use the site for a Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“The city hall of Phnom Penh does not refuse,” reads a June 4 letter from Kep Chuktema to Sath Navy, director of the Navy Garment Co. “Please, Madam, prepare more details on the development plan on this area and come to discuss with experts of the Phnom Penh cabinet in order to fill out the form asking for an approval from the Ministry of Economic and Finance.”
Kep Chuktema encouraged Sath Navy to act with urgency. Sath Navy is married to the owner of the self-named Duong Chhiv Import Export & Transport Co.
The letter was issued in response to Sath Navy’s May 26 proposed joint venture with the city to complete the exhibition hall’s construction and obtain the rights to Chroy Changva park’s 17 hectares for a period of 70 years, according to Sath Navy’s letter.
Sath Navy attached the proposal to a master plan to erect dozens of apartment houses and villas on the recently built garden surrounding the construction site.
Kep Chuktema refused Thursday to name the company whose plan he had endorsed, but maintained that Prime Minister Hun Sen had approved the project. The land was offered to a private company because the city cannot afford to complete the construction, he said.
“The capacity of the City Hall is clearly not able,” Kep Chuktema said. To leave it “without a business is not looking good.”
Phnom Penh officials contacted last week said the plan was passed without the consent of city officials.
“It was not passed through the city ordinary meeting,” Deputy Cabinet Chief Sok Lakhena said Thursday.
First Deputy Governor Than Sina, who is responsible for the municipality’s budget, said Kep Chuktema’s claims of economic constraints are unfounded.
“I control the city’s budget. I believe the city can continue the job,” he said Wednesday. “But I really do not know about this project.”
According to senior city officials familiar with the plan, Kep Chuktema’s preliminary agreement with Sath Navy materialized after a deputy Cabinet chief began negotiations with Duong Chhiv shortly after Chea Sophara was fired following the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots.
Kep Chuktema said Thursday that the proposal was first considered last week at a meeting between Deputy Governor Chev Kim Heng and Finance Ministry Undersecretary of State Ngy Tayi. The officials calculated the cost of the proposed 70-year rental contract with the Duong Chhiv company, he said.
But Chev Kim Heng denied that the discussion took place.
“No, we talked about different issues,” Chev Kim Heng said. The government wants “to keep the building to try the Khmer Rouge case.”
Kep Chuktema said Thursday that the government wishes to use the land for a Khmer Rouge tribunal, but he said there is little hope of international funding to realize this goal.
A number of countries have said they would help fund the tribunal, but pledges of assistance have not yet been specified. The tribunal agreement signed earlier this year by UN and government officials is waiting for approval by the National Assembly.
“The Ministry of Interior does not refuse” the private deal, Kep Chuktema said. “The company planned to build a business complex and a five-star hotel. It is huge.”
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay on Thursday said handing the land over to a private company is contrary to the people’s will.
“This is a completely illegal deal,” Son Chhay charged, noting that municipal authorities forcibly confiscated the land in 2001 to build a public park.
Kep Chuktema said city authorities will not close the deal until the national government has a fair chance to solicit funds to construct a Khmer Rouge tribunal.