Pol Pot-Era Airbase Earmarked as Future Tourist Gateway

Prime Minister Hun Sen said Saturday that in order to manage future tourist numbers, the government will construct a new international airport on the site of the Kompong Chhnang airbase, which was built by slave labor during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Mr. Hun Sen said that construction of the new airport, to serve commercial, military and cargo air traffic, will begin between 2025 and 2030, when tourist arrivals are expected to reach seven million people each year.

“I would like to announce that the new international airport, which we need to do and which I have spoken about before, but without using its name, now, I would like to announce that it is Kompong Chhnang,” Mr. Hun Sen said during a ceremony to hand out land titles near the airport in the province’s Rolea Ba’ier district.

Along with his plan for the airport itself, Mr. Hun Sen also said that the country would have a high-speed rail link to transport passengers between Phnom Penh International Airport and the future Kompong Chhnang airport.

Mr. Hun Sen, who will be seeking re-election next July, did not say how the airport and rail mega-projects would be funded, though he did warn families living on 768 hectares of land near to the airport to refrain from building permanent structures.

“I’m asking that people don’t expand the land [for growing crops on] and don’t build hard construction, such as cement houses,” he said.

Eng Suosdey, undersecretary of state at the State Secretariat for Civil Aviation, said yesterday that he did not have any details about project, including whether any private investors would be in involved.

“Last time, [according to] our feasibility data, we need a sky, high-speed, rail to go direct from Kompong Chhnang to Phnom Penh,” Mr. Suosdey said. “It’s only 70 km,” he added.

Several international investors have in the past sought to rebuild the Khmer Rouge-era airbase.

In June 1996, the government and Malaysia-based Dragon Gold agreed to a $3.4 billion project that would turn the airport into the world’s largest cargo hub, but the plan was plagued by financial problems from the start.

In May 2003, the Ministry of Commerce announced that a more cautious $500 million project with the company, and its partner Financial Technology Australia, would likely not go ahead due to minimal investment from the contractors.

Originally built with Beijing’s money and by Chinese technical experts for the Pol Pot regime, Kompong Chhnang was a military airbase chosen for its strategic location near protective mountains. Built on 300 hectares of land, construction of the 2.4-km-long runway took place between May 1976 and December 1978, and was carried out by thousands of prisoners, many of whom were executed nearby.

Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said the airport had a very bloody past.

“People were forced to work, people died,” Mr. Chhang said. “The history is there…the history will remain there no matter what you do.”

Mr. Chhang suggested a future memorial to inform tourists of the airport’s Khmer Rouge-era history.

“To recognize it as a crime site [would be] beneficial to the people living there and to the visitors,” he said.

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