King Norodom Sihamoni was keenly interested in renovating the Tonle Bassac National Theater and was worried that a private company would be charged with its restoration, retired King Norodom Sihanouk’s official biographer said Wednesday.
“He was not in favor of this going into the hands of a private investor,” biographer Julio Jeldres said. “You never know what investors are going to do.”
Despite the King’s restoration goals, Culture and Fine Arts Minister Prince Sisowath Panara Sirivuddh confirmed on Tuesday that Kith Meng, chairman of Cambodian Television Network and MobiTel, will renovate the Bassac Theater, also known as King Suramarit Theater, for an estimated $10 million.
In return, he said, Kith Meng will get an undisclosed amount of land around the theater to build a conference center and office buildings.
Jeldres said he did not know how King Sihamoni reacted to the news of Kith Meng’s plan but said the King had expressed an interest in restoring the theater for months.
“One of the first things he said after the coronation [in October] was that he wanted to rebuild the King Suramarit theater,” Jeldres said.
King Sihamoni even went so far as to meet with architects, writers and historians in a televised audience Feb 8 to discuss the issue. He was presented with a report prepared by several architects outlining the need for a national performing arts center, Jeldres said, and was favorable to the architects’ proposal of establishing a foundation that would raise funds for the project.
Despite confirming the ministry’s deal with Kith Meng on Tuesday, Prince Panara Sirivuddh said Wednesday that he had not yet received documents finalizing the deal from the Council of Ministers even though he and his secretaries of state approved the plan in a meeting earlier this month.
“Until now I don’t have any documents,” he said.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith, however, said on Wednesday that the plan does not have to be approved by the Council of Ministers.
Instead, if the deal involves state property, the Ministry of Finance is asked to evaluate whether it is a fair deal. But the final decision lies with the Ministry of Culture.
Kong Vibol, first secretary of state at the Ministry of Finance, said his ministry was not aware of the deal.
“We did not get any information about this from the Ministry of Culture,” he said Wednesday.
The theater’s land is estimated to be worth about $600 per square meter, according to Saroeun Soush, managing director of real estate consultant Asia Real Property Co Ltd.
Prince Panara Sirivuddh estimated the theater’s compound encompasses more than two hectares, which would mean the entire property is worth at least $12 million.
Prince Panara Sirivuddh said he hopes King Sihamoni will agree with the plan, given that the theater will retain its original name and architecture.
He said Kith Meng’s plan had the added benefit of carrying the required funds with it, unlike numerous other plans that he said had fallen through over the years.
“I think it’s time to do something,” he said, adding he did not know why people were nervous about the deal. “We cannot find another solution.”
But You Muoy of the NGO Seametrey, which was planning to raise funds for the theater, expressed concern nonetheless, saying she believed it should be a communal and cultural, rather than a business, affair.
“The way to do it matters,” she said. “These deals were not struck in a transparent way.”
You Muoy said she had submitted a proposal to various ministers on Feb 1 for a festival to be held to raise funds for the theater, as a fitting tribute to the new King and a source of pride for Cambodians. She was disappointed with the news of a private developer taking over the site.
Charly Todd, senior project adviser for Cambodia Living Arts, an NGO that works with performers at the theater and surrounding communities, was also worried about the lack of public information surrounding the deal.
“We’ve had these high hopes that the national theater would be rebuilt, but what’s the plan?” Todd asked Wednesday. “There’s so little information.”