Progress Questioned 3 Years After KR Site Lease

Three years ago this month, Japanese company JC Royal took over the operations of the Choeung Ek memorial to those slain during the Khmer Rouge regime.

Following news of the deal, outrage emerged from several quarters over the government’s apparent “privatization” of one of the most potent symbols of Cambo­dia’s killing fields.

In exchange for a 30-year concession to manage the site, the little-known company promised to up­grade the site for tourists.

Today, however, few of JC Roy­al’s promised improvements have been carried out, and the 2005 deal with the company has provided growing revenues from the site’s entrance fees to an educational scholarship fund that has ties to the government.

SRP leader Sam Rainsy also criticized the ambiguous relationship between JC Royal, the equally little-known nonprofit group Sun Fund, and the Council of Ministers.

“We can see this scheme is not very transparent,” he said.

The 2005 contract, signed by Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuk­tema and JC Royal President Koji Yamamoto, specified that the company would initially pay the municipality a flat fee of $15,000 a year from the revenue earned at the site.

Choeung Ek Director Chour Sokty said in a recent interview that the site received 130,227 foreign visitors in 2006 and 180,741 in 2007. With a minimum admission charge of $2 per foreign visitor, the site should have taken in more than $621,000 in that two-year period.

The municipality’s contract with JC Royal called for the upgrading of Choeung Ek’s entrance gate, construction of a perimeter fence, new landscaping and development of a place of reflection to “respect the souls of the victims who were kill­ed.” There was also talk of a museum and film screening room.

But aside from a new perimeter wall and some new informational placards, Choeung Ek remains much as it was in the 1980s, when a Vietnamese colonel named Mai Lam oversaw the construction of the site’s trademark stupa of skulls.

Today, the most striking change at Choeung Ek is the 6.5-km tarmac road from Phnom Penh, which was completed in March 2007 thanks to an Asian Develop­ment Bank loan. Nida Ouk, a senior project manager for the ADB in Phnom Penh, said JC Royal had nothing to do with fi­nancing or constructing the $1.64-million road.

Chour Sokty said JC Royal has spent about $150,000 to purchase a parcel of land adjacent to Choeung Ek for the planned museum, which will have a library, film screening room and historical exhibits, though he did not know when construction would begin.

Chour Sokty said JC Royal makes no profit from Choeung Ek, as the profits go to the Sun Fund, an educational non-profit organization reportedly founded by Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2002.

The Sun Fund has used the profits from Choeung Ek to pay for scholarships for 150 impoverished children and some small civic works in a neighboring village, Chour Sokty said.

“We develop step by step and keep some [money] to help the students, because they are poor and need help,” he said.

Taking into account municipality fees, estimated staffing costs and the estimated cost of improvements to the site, Choeung Ek ran, based on data from Chour Sokty, a surplus of about $300,000 for 2006 and 2007.

Chour Sokty also said the only JC Royal representative he has met with is Council of Ministers official Chea Vandeth, cabinet chief for Cabinet Minister Sok An.

Chea Vandeth reportedly helped ink the JC Royal deal in 2005. At that time he was reportedly the chairman of JC Royal’s board of directors.

In the wake of the controversy over the deal, the Council of Minis­ters announced that Hun Sen was the honorary chairman of the Sun Fund and that Chea Vandeth was the fund’s secretary-general. Chea Vandeth told reporters at the time that JC Royal President Koji Yama­moto also served as the president of the Sun Fund.

Contact information could not be found for either JC Royal or the Sun Fund, and Chour Sokty said JC Royal’s only Cambodia office is at Choeung Ek.

“His Excellency Chea Vandeth coordinates for the two companies,” Chour Sokty said, adding that he reports the site’s monthly revenues to him and to the municipality.

Chour Sokty said that when he needs money for Choeung Ek, he asks the Sun Fund.

“They return the amount of money we need for development and keep the rest for students,” he said.

Contacted by telephone, Chea Vandeth, however, said he was no longer deeply involved in managing Choeung Ek, and declined to answer questions.

“I continue helping, but not much,” he said.

Kep Chuktema, however, said Chea Vandeth is the point man for the Choeung Ek site.

“I recently took $40,000 from Mr Chea Vandeth because the company promised to help us with a 50-percent share for an $80,000 red dirt road construction in a village neighboring Choeung Ek,” he said.

Kep Chuktema also said he is content with the pace of development at Choeung Ek and defended the company’s management.

JC Royal has a “pretty clear overall plan to state what they are going to do every year,” he said. “The company has formed an audit committee so they are pretty clear dealing with payment and revenues.”

“The company cannot earn profits because the company has been using some revenue for providing scholarships for impoverished students,” he said.

Asked about the working relationship between the Sun Fund and JC Royal, Kep Chuktema said he wasn’t aware and referred further questions about the company’s audit and master plan to his cabinet chief, Nuon Sameth, who could not be reached for comment.

In 2006, Chea Vandeth told Kyodo News that the Sun Fund had built 10 schools and arranged study tours to Japan. The article quoted a grateful scholarship student, Hem Rumtum, 19, from National University of Manage­ment as saying: “Without the company’s offer, I have no chance to study in this university.”

Neang Say, a Cambodian farmer who discovered the open pits of bodies at Choeung Ek in 1979 and served as the site’s director for 26 years, spoke out strongly against the JC Royal deal in 2005. He claims he was ousted from his position as a result. He has subsequently been reinstated as the site’s dep­uty director, but today he refuses to comment on Choeung Ek management or JC Royal.

Sok An declined to comment on the management of Choeung Ek finances at a recent press conference on the Khmer Rouge tribunal, dismissing the question as off-topic.

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