Less than two weeks after granting the owners of Naga Floating Casino a reprieve from a new law that would have shut them down, top government officials flew to Malaysia with their families for a three-day stay at a posh resort belonging to Naga’s owners, according to Malaysian press reports.
Prime Minister Hun Sen led the entourage July 9, which also included his wife Bun Rany, two of his children, Minister of the Council of Ministers Sok An and his wife, and other unnamed officials, according to Malaysian newspapers.
Also present on the trip was Bun Sambo, one of several deputy directors of Hun Sen’s cabinet, and his wife. Reached by phone and asked about the trip Thursday, Bun Sambo responded “I’m sorry to tell you, that is not my role to talk about such a thing.’’ Sok An could not be reached for comment.
Khieu Thavika, an adviser to Sok An, strongly dismissed any suggestion that the trip or any other private benefit influenced government policy toward Naga or other projects.
“It is not true,’’ he said Thursday. “What I say is what I know, but what I don’t know, I won’t say. You should understand if something really happens with a deal, an official statement would be made to the public, and if not, then it would not be true.’’
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said he was unaware of the details of the Malaysian visit because it was “not really an official visit.’’ A diplomat at the Malaysian Embassy also said he did not know the details because “it was a private visit.’’ Paul Ng, operations manager for Naga in Phnom Penh, said Thursday that he only knew what he “read in the (local) paper’’ about the Malaysian visit.
Naga Floating Casino was due to shut down June 30, under a policy enacted by the government to ban casinos in Phnom Penh. The city’s other major casino, Holiday International, has shut its doors and will relocate.
But the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruled that Naga has the right to continue its operations indefinitely until the government determines whether it will honor a 20-year contract inked in 1995. Government officials have since stated that since the court has validated the contract, the right of Naga’s owners to operate remains valid.
According to Malaysian press reports, Hun Sen’s entourage arrived in Malaysia July 9 on a “special aircraft.’’ They then proceeded to the Nexus Resort Karambunai, a golf resort 30 km outside of the Malaysian city of Kota Kinabalu.
Khieu Thavika said the officials went to Malaysia for a conference by invitation “from a Malaysian political party.’’
“It was normal relations between CPP and Malaysian political party,’’ he said. “The invitation was made to invite them to join in a conference on behalf of a political party, but it was not on state business. Nothing relating to state affairs or business was discussed.’’
Malaysian press reports, however, stated that the visit was “on the invitation of’’ Dr. Chen Lip Keong, Chief Executive Officer of FACB Group of companies. The FACB group is the parent company of Naga owner, the Ariston Group.
The purpose of the visit was to “study’’ the areas’ growing tourism, according to the Malaysian press. The article said the visit also would allow Hun Sen to lobby for more investments and encourage Malaysians to visit Cambodia.
At the end of the visit, Malaysian officials announced that Hun Sen was “receptive’’ to the idea of twinning Phnom Penh and Kota Kinabalu for tourism purposes.
Ariston is regarded as the largest foreign investor in Cambodia, with projects approved totaling $1 billion. However, few of the projects have been implemented.
Asked if discussions were held on the casino, or investments during the stay, Bun Sambo responded, “I cannot provide you any clarification.’’
According to promotional material available on the internet, the Nexus resort boasts “490 finely appointed guest rooms (42 – 50 sqm) and suites (85 – 315 sqm), including 6 mansions of Presidential proportion with private balconies affording visitors panoramic views of the ocean and manicured fairways.’’
It also offers hot and cold Jacuzzis, archery, badminton, volleyball and garden chess, sauna, steam-rooms, massage, as well as a freeform swimming pool.
Chen told Malaysian reporters that Hun Sen’s visit was “a reflection and endorsement of the beauty and charm of Sabah not only as an attractive tourist destination in Asia, but also an ideal retreat for government leaders and top businessmen in the world,’’ according to the Malaysian Daily Express.
(Additional reporting by Kimsan Chantara)