Speaking at the Government-Private Sector Forum Tuesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen encouraged the establishment of a new national airline but was noncommittal on whether foreigners should be allowed to own property in Cambodia.
Addressing the biannual meeting, where private businessmen have the opportunity to converse directly with the prime minister, International Business Club Chairman Bretton Sciaroni urged the government to allow foreign ownership of permanent fixtures on land.
The Constitution and the Land Law prohibit foreigners from owning land, Sciaroni said, but neither stipulates whether it is legal for foreigners to own apartments, factories and other buildings.
“Because the law is silent on this issue, there is the opportunity for the government to issue a subdecree” that would provide foreigners with a way to obtain property, he said in his address to Hun Sen, adding that clarification on this issue would attract many more foreign investors.
Sciaroni added that other countries in the region that prohibit foreigners from owning land do grant them ownership rights to permanent fixtures.
“It will help further develop the real estate market…and make us competitive with other countries in the region,” he added.
In response to Sciaroni’s comments, Hun Sen requested that government officials continue to study the issue and deferred legal questions to the Constitutional Council.
“It is necessary to study clearly this issue because it’s related to the Constitution,” Hun Sen said, adding: “The right people to explain whether it violates the Constitution …are the national Constitutional Council.”
Sciaroni said by telephone on Tuesday evening that he views Hun Sen’s response as a neutral gesture indicating that discussions are ongoing.
“He’s not closing the door,” Sciaroni said.
Constitutional Council member Son Soubert said the council has not received an official request to look into the issue of foreign ownership of property in Cambodia and wouldn’t be able to examine it until they do.
Sung Bonna, general manager of Bonna Realty Group, said by telephone that he thinks foreigners being able to own land in Cambodia is a good idea.
Currently, foreigners can co-own property with a Cambodian who has majority ownership or obtain ownership through marriage, he said, adding that many foreigners are not satisfied with this arrangement and would have more faith in their investments if they were complete owners.
Another topic of discussion at the meeting was the establishment of a new national airline, which Ho Vandy, president of the Cambodia Association of Travel Agents and co-chair of the forum’s tourism working group, said was announced last month by Tourism Minister Thong Khon.
Ho Vandy said he believed a national carrier would be instrumental in catering to tourists.
Hun Sen said he would welcome a new national airline, but added that it must be of much higher quality than the now-defunct Royal Air Cambodge, which he said lost the state millions of dollars before ceasing operations.
“I am waiting like you,” Hun Sen said, ordering Cabinet Minister Sok An, who was attending the forum, to look into the matter further.
“We will establish a national airline company but if we were to establish it for a loss we shouldn’t. It would be better to keep that budget to build roads,” Hun Sen said.
Thong Khon said by telephone after the forum that the proposed national airline will likely be a joint venture with a foreign firm, but added that no partnership has been made so far.
Issues of transparency in the transportation industry were also raised by So Nguon, co-chair of the working group on energy, infrastructure and transport.
In response, Hun Sen said that military officials using state vehicles for private business are part of the problem.
The prime minister then ordered Minister of Defense Tea Banh, Deputy RCAF Commander-in-Chief Pol Saroeun and Military Police Commander Sao Sokha—all of whom were in attendance—to put a halt to the use of military trucks by private businesses.
Reprimanding military officials, Hun Sen said: “Don’t be confused…. If you all can’t obey military discipline, it means that you can go do another thing.”
Sao Sokha said he will follow Hun Sen’s orders.
“Any order from the prime minister, we have to put into practice,” he said in an interview, though he declined to say how officials would be punished for such behavior.
(Additional reporting by Emily Lodish)