Theater Goals Usurped by Private Interest

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.”



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