Nationalism Party Secretary-General Muth Chantha has written to U.S. Ambassador William Todd to request clarification of U.S. policy toward the collection of private toll fees along the Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville highway, which the U.S. constructed in the 1950s and later reconstructed in the 1970s and 1990s.
The letter, dated Wednesday, says that the Cambodian government signed a 35-year agreement in 2001 to allow a private firm to collect toll fees at four locations along National Road 4 in exchange for maintenance of the road.
“[O]n March 26, 2001, the Ministry of Public Works and Transport confirmed that it had granted an open-ended concession for the maintenance of National Route 4 to AZ Distribution Co. for an unspecified annual fee,” it says.
“Each toll booth currently charges approximately $0.67 for family car, with a Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville journey costing a total of $2.68 in tolls,” it adds.
In the letter, Mr. Chantha notes that the road was paid for “with the generosity of American taxpayers’ money” for public use by Cambodians.
“For this reason, please permit me to ask your explanation whether soft and hard projects which were funded by American taxpayers’ money for public use and non-profitable purpose would allow a hosting government to lease to private companies for profitable purposes,” Mr. Chantha writes in the letter’s conclusion.
Mr. Chantha’s Nationalism Party was previously known as the Norodom Ranariddh Party and earlier this year pledged its support to the opposition CNRP.
National Road 4, which stretches 230 km, was inaugurated in July 1959 in a ceremony presided over both by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk and then-U.S. Ambassador William Trimble, having been built with a $25 million U.S. aid grant.
Then known as the Khmer-American Friendship Highway, it was further expanded with U.S. aid money under Lon Nol in the 1970s. The U.S. government again funded the road’s reconstruction following the resumption of full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cambodia after the end of Untac in 1993.
Son Chhay, a CNRP lawmaker-elect referenced by Mr. Chantha in the letter, on Thursday denied knowledge of the letter but said that he supported the request.
“The road was built by the U.S. in 1996 to help Cambodians,” said Mr. Chhay. “Then [Deputy Prime Minister] Sok An was interested in making money, and set up a company to privatize the road. Later on they came up with this explanation that they cannot expand and maintain the road without resources.”
Mr. Chhay explained that he had stood at a tollbooth on the road for three hours in the early 2000s and counted passing cars, allowing him to crudely estimate that the firm’s operation of the tolls was at the time taking in $78 million in revenue.
“The question is why was there no bidding? There was no contract made available to the public—I think they want to know where the money is going,” he said.
“This campaign will make the American people aware that their money is being used for corruption,” added Mr. Chhay, whose CNRP has since last year’s disputed national election called for aid cuts to the CPP government.
Pheng Sovicheano, deputy director-general of the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation’s public works department, declined to comment on the road.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, which Mr. An heads, denied the claim that the deputy prime minister had interest in the private tolls.
“I think it still belongs to Ing Bun Hoaw,” said Mr. Siphan. Until recently Mr. Bun Hoaw served as secretary of state at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
Mr. Siphan also defended the lack of a public bidding process for the road.
“At the time, we asked for a number of companies, and no one volunteered to do that, so that was decided in the Ministry of Finance,” Mr. Siphan explained.
Ministry of Finance Secretary of State Ngy Tayi said he was unaware of the issue.
Mr. Chantha said Thursday he had written the letter to raise awareness of the road’s “privatization.” His next step, he said, would be to write to U.S. Congress “to wake up American lawmakers to know about this issue.”
Sean McIntosh, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, said in an email that the U.S. pays close attention to the stewardship of its “gift” to Cambodia.
“[T]he Royal Government has the sole right and responsibility to take necessary measures to maintain National Route 4 since its transfer from the United States,” he said. “[But] in keeping with principles of good governance, any arrangements should be openly competed and awarded through a transparent selection process and all revenues collected should be subject to strict and visible accountability.”