Attwood Investment Group, an import-export company with ties to the wife of Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh, has been awarded the rights to develop one of the country’s first tax-free industrial zones in Sihanoukville, according to government documents and officials.
Attwood, in which Cham Prasidh’s wife owns a $1 million, 10-percent stake, was awarded the Stung Haw district concession in the busy seaport on March 25 by the Council of Ministers in a process that was apparently not open to bidding.
Mao Thura, undersecretary of state for the Commerce Ministry, said Wednesday that the 192-hectare site is close enough to the sea that Attwood may be planning to build its own port facilities.
“Attwood has not started anything yet, but Attwood may hire a private company from Thailand to develop a master plan,” Mao Thura said. “Then Attwood could lease land to other private investment who may want to set up factories.”
Following a feasibility study conducted by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency in 2003, the Ministry of Commerce embraced a policy of creating Export Processing Zones in Cambodia to attract foreign investment and to build an economic “growth corridor” from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville.
The Law on Special Promotions Zones has not yet been passed. However, likely benefits for those who set up in the special zones will include freedom from import duties, lower corporate tax rates of the 1994 Investment Law and the possible awarding of land ownership titles to non-Cambodians.
JICA’s expert on the Sihanoukville export zone was out of the office Wednesday.
Attwood Marketing Manager David Sim confirmed that the minister’s wife, Tep Bopha Prasidh, was a shareholder in the company but said there was no conflict of interest in her owning shares in a company awarded a government contract.
“Conflict of interest? No, it is a personal investment,” he said.
Sim said that Attwood was awarded the industrial zone because it already owned the 192 hectares of land in Stung Haw and has experience in property development.
“This is a win-win situation,” he said. “If the industrial zone is attractive, if it has nice roads, it will attract more factories which will provide more jobs,” he said.
Sim said that Attwood, which distributes high-end consumer items like Johnny Walker whiskey and Hennessey cognac, plans to attract garment, textile and light manufacturing to its tax-free zone, officially named the Cambodia Free Trade Zone Development Corporation.
Sim said he did not know whether Attwood competed with other firms for the export processing zone concession and that the project was in the early stages.
According to an April 2004 Ministry of Commerce document signed by Undersecretary of State Kem Sithon, Tep Bopha Prasidh, who also works at the Ministry of Commerce as an administrative chief, owns a 10 percent stake in the company, or 100 shares worth $1 million.
No announcement of Tep Bopha Prasidh selling her shares in the company could be found in Commerce Ministry publications checked this week.
Cham Prasidh could not be reached for comment Wednesday. His assistant, Mao Sakal, said that the minister was out of the country but would respond to written questions about the matter upon his return.