More than 150 prefabricated buildings missing from the Takeo Vocational Training Center for years have been found—at a hotel in Sihanoukville allegedly owned by a government official, an investigator said Wednesday.
Many of the buildings are at the Chhne Molop Chrei (Shady Beach) Hotel near Victory Beach in Sihanoukville, although others were recently moved to Snake Island off the coast, said a senior official of the Ministry of Parliamentary Relations and Inspection.
He said the hotel is owned by Yim Chhai Ly, secretary of state for the Ministry of Rural Development. Several attempts to contact Yim Chhai Ly for comment this week were unsuccessful.
Yim Chhai Ly told The Cambodia Daily last year that he had not stolen the buildings, but was simply storing them until they could be used for a new vocational training center.
The investigator, however, said the modular, trailer-like structures were being used for storage and to house hotel workers. They were not rented out as hotel rooms, he said.
“He took [them] to Sihanoukville to use at his hotel,” said the senior official, who last year helped search for the missing Takeo buildings as a member of an inter-ministerial investigation committee. The investigator said he also found buildings on Snake Island, a couple of kilometers off the coast.
The buildings had been part of a $12 million compound built by Japan in Takeo province as an Untac base and donated to the Prison Guards Become Civil Servants Cambodian government in 1993.
The gift of nearly 200 units, equipped with such amenities as air-conditioning, electrical wiring and plumbing, was to be used to provide vocational training for the poor under the Ministry of Rural Development.
But over the years, much of the equipment was stolen, transferred to other public institutions or sold by government officials who pocketed the cash, according to the ministries of Finance and Inspection and local authorities.
Expensive items such as air conditioners and vehicles began disappearing as early as 1994. By 1998, the buildings themselves were on the move.
“Right now, the area looks like a ghost town,” Sou Phirin, Takeo governor from 1993 to early 1999, said this week.
Government investigators began looking into the case early last year, asking the Rural Development Ministry to rein in its erring officials and return the buildings and other equipment.
But little happened until last week, when Finance Minister Keat Chhon ordered the Rural Development Ministry and local authorities to punish officials who illegally sold and moved the state property.
That finally got things moving.
“Right now our ministry is looking into a way to solve the issue,” said Mok Sophy, undersecretary of state for the Rural Development Ministry, acknowledging pressures from the ministries of Finance and Inspection.
Investigators have not yet interviewed Yim Chhai Ly. Last year, he told investigators the buildings had been moved to Sihanoukville to protect them from vandalism or worse.
“He [said he] was afraid of thieves stealing equipment,” Mok Sophy said.
In an interview last July with The Cambodia Daily, Yim Chhai Ly said the buildings were transferred from Takeo to Sihanoukville for the vocational training center, but the plan was put on hold because a piece of land donated by the Sihanoukville municipality was occupied by squatters.
However, other senior officials of the Rural Development Ministry said no such plan existed. “There was no plan to develop a vocational center in Sihanoukville,” said a senior official Wednesday.
This isn’t the first time Yim Chhai Ly has been involved in controversy. Last year, he admitted the ministry had submitted disbursement requests for roads already completed.
Yutaka Nomura, second secretary at the Japanese Embassy, said this week he is surprised that the issue of the missing buildings still has not been resolved.
Last year, “the Ministry of Rural Development pledged to return all the missing equipment and buildings to the [Takeo vocational] center,” he said. But Japanese embassy officials who were following the case have since returned to Japan, and nobody else has been monitoring the situation.
Meanwhile, Japan embassy officials also said they will be checking on a donation that was made in 1995 and 1996 to the Takeo training center of an additional $150,000 for renovation and equipment.
The embassy’s new program official Yuji Watanabe said they would be visiting the center to make sure the donations are being properly used.
(Additional reporting by Ham Samnang)