Top government officials including Prime Minister Hun Sen approved a development contract six months ago in one of the country’s most sacred areas—Phnom Kulen near Siem Reap, documents show.
The 2,400-hectare concession was granted to Military Region 4 in June, in apparent violation of national law.
In 1993, the 37,500-hectare Phnom Kulen two hours northeast of Siem Reap was declared by royal decree as one of Cambodia’s 23 protected areas. By law, a natural park is to be protected for scientific, educational and recreational purposes.
However, the concession agreement grants the land “for agriculture, exploitation and services to support the needs of RCAF Region 4 military,” according to Khmer-language documents obtained from a top government official.
Rumors of plans for a hotel, casino and hydroelectric project at the site could not be confirmed.
King Jayavarman II declared Cambodia’s independence from Java in a ceremony on Phnom Kulen in 802AD. Since then, the site has been characterized as the foundation of Angkor civilization, a sacred sanctuary and the source of Khmer identity.
The area, which features dramatic waterfalls and riverbed stone carvings, has only recently opened to tourists. Khmer Rouge activity in the area had put the Phnom Kulen off-limits until about six months ago.
The military concession was approved by the Council of Ministers in June, according to a copy of the contract. RCAF General Chief of Staff Ke Kim Yan already signed it, and Hun Sen and then-First Prime Minister Ung Huot had scribbled their approval in the margins in late May.
Muth Khieu, Hun Sen’s deputy chief of cabinet at the time of the contract, said Monday he was not aware of the agreement, and referred questions to the Council of Ministers.
Sum Manit, secretary of state of the Council of Ministers, whose signature appears on the document, said, “I don’t remember that.” But he added he “only transmits the decision” of the prime minister.
Ke Kim Yan could not be reached for comment Monday evening.
Acting Conservation Director Chay Samith on Monday confirmed the concession is within the protected area. He said he learned about the contract only last month.
Chay Samith said the Ministry of Environment will write a letter to the Council of Ministers asking it to reconsider its decision. “This could be against the royal decree and environmental law,” he said.
“We do not oppose the decision, but it is a historical site for eco-tourism and cultural tourism,” Chay Samith added. “If the trees are cleared…the old temples will be exposed to strong wind [and erosion].”
Chay Samith said the Council of Ministers may not have known the concession was part of the protected area. The document describes the concession only as being in the “Phnom Kulen area.” A group now is working with the government to map the park’s boundaries.
Lay Khim, acting chief of the Ministry of Environment’s National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary Office, said last week that he did not know of any concessions granted in the park itself, but noted that a forestry concession belonging to Samrong Wood is adjacent to the area.
He said he also had heard that there had been some encroachment on the land by the former Khmer Rouge. “We need to be clear about the border,” he said.
There also are rumors that the mountain is being eyed for a possible casino and hotel complex.
Minister of Environment Mok Mareth said he did not know of any such development plans, nor did Sok Chenda, secretary-general of the Council for the Development of Cambodia.
“It would be a big surprise to me,” Sok Chenda said. “It should be developed as a tourism spot, but to have a high-tech resort is not the style.”