Businesses Wonder Whether They Will Ever See Payback Time
Most of the physical evidence from factional fighting last July has been cleaned up and swept away—factories rebuilt, gas pumps replaced, hoses patched up and holes painted over.
Some scars still exist, however, like the windows of the TTHK Toyota dealership in Tuk Thla commune on Pochentong Road, where clear tape covers holes made by bullets. It fights a losing struggle to keep cracks in the glass from spreading.
The showroom windows are also a vivid reminder to the dealership’s management that what they believed to be promises of compensation from the government have yet to come to fruition. “We are gradually losing hope,” TTHK General Manager Elma Lim said last week. “It’s been a year, how much longer will it take?”
And although some money has been paid to homeowners and the operators of Pochentong Airport, there is no indication that other companies that suffered damage will see their claims filled any time soon. “[Payment] is still a possibility,” said one private industry source close to the compensation process. “But it will have to wait until after the elections.”
The potential of government compensation for damage during the fighting was first brought up in late July by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen at a public meeting, stating the government would “pay compensation to people who lost their homes and to domestic and foreign companies.”
But lawyers and government officials point out that there was never any legal recourse for companies to be compensated for damages.
“The government has no legal responsibility to pay damages,” an American lawyer noted, “so the government, by examining the possibilities, goes beyond the call of duty.”
A committee of officials from several government ministries and departments evaluated the claims, reducing several of the larger ones by millions of dollars. The final price tag on the fighting came to about $50 million.
One committee member said that some claims have been paid, mainly to people who had lost their homes or the breadwinners in their families, usually worth between $5,000 and $10,000. The final decision on which of the remainder will be paid now sits with the Council of Ministers, he said.
Government officials contacted this week could not say how many companies had been compensated. Te Doung Tara, an economic adviser to the Council of Ministers, noted that Dumez-GTM, the Malaysian-French joint-venture renovating Pochentong, had its $1.7-million claim filled in December. Instead of cash, though, its build-operate-transfer contract was extended.
Other businesses, however, are still waiting for news, and some investors say they are frustrated by the lengthy process that has dragged on for nearly a year.
Bun Thoeun, who owns the Klan Romseu moto shop, said Wednesday that he has heard nothing from the government since he applied for compensation for 30 motorcycles that were stolen July 7. “I don’t know whether the government is being slow to pay,” he said, “but I have no hope of getting compensation.”
Another Tuol Kok motorcycle shop owner, who would only identify himself as Heng, said many shops have closed their doors since the fighting because they owed too much money after their shops were looted.
Along with small Cambodian businesses, some of the country’s largest foreign investors say they are also in the dark over the status of their claims. “We have heard nothing for three or four months,” Caltex Cambodia Ltd General Manager John Raeside said Monday. “Just speculation. We heard [the process] is at the Council of Ministers.”
Caltex, one of Cambodia’s largest foreign investors, has requested $260,000 for damage to its gas station on Pochentong Road that was stripped bare and for one of its food stores that was looted. “They told us to quickly repair our station because it was a public relations eyesore on the way to the airport,” Raeside said. “That just added insult to injury.”
Lim of TTHK believes her company has gone through only about four of the eight steps involved in settling their $1.4-million claim to pay for the theft of equipment and 18 vehicles and damage to the building.
“We go to one ministry and then the next and then the next, they tell us we are missing a document or did not fill one out properly,” she said with exasperation.
The only thing investors do seem to hear about, they say, are rumors of other companies getting payments. But few of the rumors seem to be true.
Even if the claims are finally settled, it is unlikely that actual cash will ever be doled out.
Government officials repeatedly have said the cash-strapped government would only be able to give assistance in the form of tax breaks. The committee member said some companies might receive only 15 percent or 20 percent of their claim. Investors acknowledge that the government is unable to pay cash and say relief in any form would be acceptable.
“We would take anything,” said Lee Thai Khit, general manager of June Textiles, whose blue-glass front was riddled with bullets during the fighting.
The company’s initial $5-million claim was knocked down to $2 million, said Lee, who added that it has been several months since he has had any word on the status of compensation. “Whatever the government decides would be all right,” Lee said.
Caltex’s Raeside agreed that import duty exemptions would be acceptable in lieu of cash. Caltex lost $3 million in 1997, he said, and the company’s business plan is affected if the compensation doesn’t come through. “We can’t afford to lose that money,” he said. “It pushes back how long it will take to be a viable company.”
Te Doung Tara said there is no deadline for completing the claims. Each application is examined on a case-by-case basis, he said.
“We dealt with Dumez because that’s where the fighting took place and they have foreign passengers coming so they had to fix it,” Te Doung Tara said. “Some businesses need [compensation] more than others… Caltex is a big company and continues to expand so it doesn’t need [compensation] as urgently as others.”
But many business investors, including petroleum giants Caltex and Shell, insist they still need the compensation, and it’s unlikely that they will simply forget about it—or let the government forget. “We had people here during the fighting, and we attended the meetings Hun Sen had about compensation,” Raeside said. “We have faith in the government that they will pay.”