Two Naga Casino buildings being built near Hun Sen an area in which tall buildings are ostensibly banned—are threatening to overshadow the headquarters of some of Cambodia’s most highly respected institutions and are angering some lawmakers and city officials.
An eight-story building and a 12-story building—both still under construction—already dominate the nearby Buddhist Institute and the prospective new headquarters of the National Assembly and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The buildings are destined to become a hotel and casino run by Malaysia’s Ariston company, which operates the shipboard Naga Casino moored on the Tonle Sap river.
Funcinpec lawmaker Keo Remy recently wrote to Prime Minister Hun Sen, asking him to order the casino construction stopped and to find an alternative place outside the city for the casino.
Government regulations state that casinos must be at least 200 km away from Phnom Penh. Most of Cambodia’s casinos—in which Cambodians are not allowed to gamble—are located near the Thai border.
Naga, however, has been allowed to stay in the capital—and, now, to expand—a fact that some lawmakers believe could be blamed on high-level government corruption.
“Building the Naga Casino taller than the buildings of the National Assembly and the Buddhist Institute is a serious mistake that affects the morality, security, pride and dignity of Cambodia,” Keo Remy wrote in his Oct 4 letter.
“It shows clearly that the casino is higher than the nation’s legislative and executive institutions, especially the Royal Palace,” the letter states.
Influential CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap—head of the construction committee for the new Assembly building—has raised similar concerns over the past two years with Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Before construction began, the prince approved a few of these complaints, Cheam Yeap said. “But nothing has changed much. They still have the go-ahead for the plan,” he said.
“We raised our concerns about the construction, but all they did was change from the proposed 16 floors to 12 floors,” he said. “I don’t know why the construction is still shooting up like this. I don’t know who is behind it.”
Cheam Yeap, who is also chair of the Assembly’s Finance and Banking Commission, said he is also worried about the security and safety of leaders and lawmakers.
Terrorists, he said, could shoot at officials from the top of the new buildings, and spies could record confidential meetings through walls. “With hotels nearby, I don’t think we would feel safe working in such an area.”
Keo Remy’s letter to the premier also cites this concern. “The most important [thing] is the concern for the safety and security of national leaders, including the Prime Minister and the King when they attend the Assembly’s meetings.”
Cheam Yeap said the Assembly tried to find an alternate site, away from the new casino, but the municipality refused to give it land on the Chroy Changva peninsula.
The casino project is not the only recent arrival to clutter the Phnom Penh skyline, Cheam Yeap said. The Hotel Cambodiana and Micasa apartments are taller than the four-story limit for buildings around the Royal Palace.
Phnom Penh Vice Governor Chev Kim Heng acknowledged that the Naga construction is taller than the standard height determined by the city for the Royal Palace area. He passed the buck to the national government.
“These buildings are being built taller than those of the Assembly and Buddhist Institute, but I don’t know why. This is the decision of the Ministry of Land Management, Urbanization and Construction, not City Hall,” he said.
Chev Kim Heng refused to condemn the construction. “This story is complicated and difficult,” he said. “Go ask the ministry why they allowed such a building.”
Nou Saing Khan, secretary of state for the Ministry of Land Management, said his ministry was sending its engineers to inspect the construction site on Monday afternoon to see if the company was violating its contract.
“Let us check out whether the construction is wrong. In principle, we want to see four floors be the height of the building, lower than the Hotel Cambodiana,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Assembly is still seeking budget allocations to break ground on its proposed new buildings, Cheam Yeap said.
The Assembly’s current building, which houses lawmakers’ offices as well as the legislative sessions, was built in 1920 and has been renovated several times since. Its roof is now being restored at a cost of about $300,000, and it is being equipped with $400,000 worth of sound and computer systems.
Once the new building is completed, the current one will house educational exhibits and act as a tourist attraction and convention venue.