Gov’t Tourism Office Traded For Villa, Cash For ‘Irregularity’ in Gov’t Rice Deal

In exchange for an air-conditioned villa and $100,000, the Mu­nicipal Tourism Department has handed over its historic French colonial-era building on Phnom Penh’s riverfront to a company that demolished it in order to build a new ho­tel, a tourism official said Wednesday.

The building, situated on prime riverfront property on Sisowath Quay across from Wat Ounalom, has been leveled over the past few days.

Lim Sinith, chief of the tourism department’s tourism industry bureau, said his department re­ceived $100,000 and a newly renovated villa on Street 73 in Daun Penh district’s Srah Chak commune from the New Hope Com­pany in exchange for the historic building.

That money was divided among the department’s 30 employees as “compensation” for agreeing to the deal, Lim Sinith said. But Lim Si­nith said he could not disclose how much each staff member re­ceived.

New Hope Company plans now to construct a 100-room, 6- to 10-story hotel where the building once stood, said company chief Lay Bunpa.

“It is a good location for a ho­tel,” he said, adding that New Hope expects to spend up to a million dollars to construct it.

He declined to disclose the value of the villa exchanged with the tourism department.

The Council of Ministers ordered the property swap after declaring the building unsafe and in need of repairs, said Mam Bun Neang, first deputy governor for Phnom Penh.

“Buildings around there used to collapse and fall on people,” Mam Bun Neang said Wednesday.

He added that the municipality “has no money to renovate that old building. It could cost millions of dollars.”

New Hope was the company awarded the controversial government deal to build the new Ministry of National Assembly and Senate Relations on public gardens near Hun Sen park.

The company, which in early January did not have an operational office, was given in return, half the public park in Chamkar Mon’s Tonle Bassac commune.

Though Lim Sinith noted that the city likely could have earned several million dollars had it sold the historic building outright, Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema said more was gained by exchanging the property.

“A swap is more beneficial than selling,” he said Wednesday.

Kep Chuktema said there was no need for a bidding process as “the municipality just allowed the swap.”

Kep Chuktema came under a barrage of criticism last week for his controversial deal handing the Choeung Ek genocide memorial over to a private Japanese firm, under a 30 year contract.

According to a municipality official, who declined to be named, New Hope proposed to take over the building last year. The Ministry of Finance officially completed the deal with New Hope about one month ago, the official said.

Despite the municipal officials’ declarations of disrepair, preservationists said that the building was in relatively good condition.

Lim Sinith said the building was constructed in the 1930s.

Observers said the demolition of the building is a loss to not only the city’s architecture but to its history. During the 1970s, the building was the home of nationalist Bunchhan Mol, leader of the Khmer Issarak who struggled for independence from French rule in the late 1940s.

“This house, I think, is very important if we talk about the past because it was owned by a Khmer man who tried to fight the French colonialists and is very well-known,” said freelance journalist Khieu Kola.

“(The building) was a major landmark, and it complemented the Wat Ounalom,” said art historian Darryl Collins.

Etienne Clement, representative of the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, also lamented the building’s loss.

“We are always saddened when the testimony of the cultural heritage is destroyed,” Clement said.

Unesco has worked with the government in the past to balance real estate development with the preservation of historic buildings.

Mam Bun Neang said that older buildings are being protected but that sometimes development needs are stronger.

“A…mandate of the government is to make the city look developed and clean,” he said.



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