Demolishing the Renakse Hotel would be a blow to cultural preservation and would mean disregarding recommendations previously agreed to by government officials, the head of Cambodia’s Unesco office said in a letter Thursday.
In a letter addressed to Religion Minister Min Khin, Unesco Country Representative Teruo Jinnai said his agency was available to help the ruling CPP “take rational and justified action” in following recommendations made at a Unesco forum in January 2006 on the preservation of urban heritage in Cambodia.
“In order to assist the owner to take rational and justified action, Unesco is prepared to meet and discuss with you at anytime,” Teruo Jinnai said, reading from the letter, which was written in French. “And a professional architect can assess the building where the hotel was situated.”
At the 2006 summit, Unesco presented a series of recommendations and reasons for working to preserve the urban heritage of Phnom Penh. Unesco called on Cambodia at the summit to protect cultural property being endangered by public or private works and to protect the contemporary role of culturally significant sites. Among the recommendations, according to a Unesco pamphlet recapping the forum, were that Cambodia apply the term “cultural property” to “structures or other features of historic, scientific, artistic or architectural value.”
Speaking at the Unesco office in Phnom Penh on Thursday night, Teruo Jinnai said the 2006 meeting had been attended—and the recommendations agreed upon—by Council of Ministers head Sok An, Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema and Princess Norodom Marie Ranariddh.
In closing remarks at that summit, Sok An endorsed the recommendations made by Unesco, saying neighboring countries had failed to preserve historical sites and paid a price for it.
“One outcome of…recent history is the slower rate of development in Cambodia compared to neighboring countries, countries that used to stand neck and neck with us,” Sok An said, according to an unofficial translation provided by Unesco. “However, this dark cloud has a silver lining; in the rush toward development and expansion of their economy, some other countries dismantled and removed their historical architectural heritage, later finding it was too late to conserve this valuable asset,” Sok An said.
Teruo Jinnai said that Unesco decided to get involved in the Renakse issue after he read a Jan 8 report in which Min Khin said the disputed building would be demolished soon.
Because of their involvement in the 2006 Unesco summit, Teruo Jinnai said, copies of the letter regarding the Renakse were sent to Sok An, Kep Chuktema and the Cabinet of the Royal Palace, urging them to consider the recommendations and saying cultural preservation can be best for everyone, even private businesses.
Alexon Inc, the private firm that is trying to buy the hotel from the CPP for $3.8 million, was also sent a copy, Teruo Jinnai said.
“If you have the appropriate approach and appropriate plan, the preservation of this building can benefit the economy also,” he said, reading from the letter that was sent.
“It’s difficult for private people to understand how to do this, which is why Unesco is offering its assistance,” he added.
In addition to the letter, Teruo Jinnai said Unesco sent a report by “an architecture expert”—whom he declined to name, citing the sensitive nature of the Renakse dispute —that calls on the government to view the hotel’s history as an economic tool.
“Choosing economic and cultural value in the same operation would be an exemplary act of modernism in a region and at a time when, under the pretext of modernity, models of the end of the 20th century are being systematically reproduced,” the architect’s report states.
The report said “high luxury” is the only sector to not be hit hard by the recent global financial crisis, adding that the Renakse Hotel had the potential to be developed into “high-end lodging.”
The architect also estimates the date of the hotel’s construction to have been between 1920 and 1926, much more recent than CPP claims that the building is from the late 19th century.
Prince Sisowath Thomico on Thursday said the Palace had not yet received Unesco’s letter, but he applauded the agency’s efforts.
“I support the government in keeping the heritage sites in Cambodia,” he said by phone. “If a country does not have its history, it will not have a good future.”
Reached by phone late Thursday, Min Khin said he had not yet received Unesco’s letter and declined to comment. Kep Chuktema and Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong could not be reached.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison and Eang Mengleng)