koh kong province – For years provincial officials and the national government have discussed plans that would make Koh Kong province a center for trade with neighboring Thailand and, eventually, the rest of Southeast Asia.
To encourage Thai and other foreign factories to set up shop in the province, the government since 2001 has been eyeing
280 hectares of land near Neang Kok village, 6 km from the Thai border, for a special trade zone.
In April 2001 a new bridge costing $8 million was opened across the Strung Metoek estuary, making possible for the first time direct land transport from Koh Kong town to Thailand.
The bridge was hailed by Prime Minister Hun Sen as a gateway to trade, and, along with the newly resurfaced National Route 48 linking Koh Kong town to Sihanoukville and Phnom Penh, it was supposed to pave the way for tourism and development.
The bridge and road are expected to be part of an Asean highway that would run from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City.
But two years later, the Koh Kong trade zone is still on the drawing board and the road to Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville has deteriorated from lack of proper maintenance.
Provincial officials are still looking for a development plan that will bring jobs and prosperity to an area where 70 percent of the population lives by fishing.
Ministry of Commerce Secretary of State Sok Siphana said earlier this month that the trade zone was “still at the draft level.”
When the zone does open, Sok Siphana said, Cambodia will get jobs, markets for its agricultural products and essential access to Thai companies.
Foreign companies that operate in the zone will take advantage of Cambodia’s General System of Preference status, which allows duty-free imports to the US and European Union, Sok Siphana said.
Draft legislation to establish the zone should be ready by the middle of 2004, he added, but declined to guess when that legislation might go into effect.
In the meantime, the lack of maintenance on National Route 48 has hampered trade and tourism, said Koh Kong First Deputy Governor Pich Han.
The road, paid for with $7 million in Thai loans and constructed by the Thai military, has not been maintained since the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots in Phnom Penh, when youths torched the Thai embassy and around a dozen Thai-owned businesses, Pich Han said.
Now the gravel surface has decayed into a mess of ruts and potholes. Four rivers along the route still must be crossed on tiny prop-powered vehicle ferries, adding time and uncertainty to the trip.
Ouk Chan, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Public Works and Transport, said the Thai government has promised another $7.5 million in grant aid to bridge the four rivers, and $14 million in low-interest loans for repairing and paving the road.
He said he expects work to begin in February of 2004.
After that, the work needed to get the road up to a level suitable for container truck transport may take years, said Chhin Kong Hean, the Ministry of Transport’s Director General of Public Works, whose department will take over maintenance when the paving and bridges are finished.
When the road is complete it is expected to boost trade with Thailand, but in its current state opinions vary on how much good it is doing.
Deputy Governor Pich Han also said the new bridge has increased trade between the two countries, though the Ministry of Commerce had no figures on how much trade might have increased.
Put Chhay, the bridge management company’s chief of staff, said little if any commercial transport crosses the bridge.
Vendors in Koh Kong town, at the foot of the bridge on the Cambodian side, also said the bridge hadn’t brought them any benefits.
“We do not know where the people have gone,” said gold merchant Chen Pheavy, 31. One or two years ago, business was much better, she said.
Clothes vendor Ly Ngoun Lim, 49, blames the decline on the end of the logging trade in the area.
“Now, some days, I don’t sell anything at all,” she said.
Motorcycle taxi driver Ky Leang Chan, 28, said business had improved a little since a low point after the anti-Thai riots.
But business in Koh Kong “has not normalized yet,” he said.