Several subordinates of a senior minister within the office of the prime minister have registered and rubber-stamped a gargantuan $23.2 billion investment project chaired by the minister’s wife, while officials in the know say the project stands little chance of getting off the ground.
The massive project was given the green light by Hing Thoraxy from the Council of Ministers and a senior researcher at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP), an independent think tank founded by the minister in question, Dr Kao Kim Hourn.
“Yes, I signed this agreement for the project but I can’t explain in the detail as I still have to prepare the documents to present to the prime minister,” Thoraxy said yesterday.
The project, which is supposed to break ground this year according to official government documents, shows a 4,158-hectare multipurpose tourism resort and a 144-hectare marina that straddles the border between Kep and Kampot province financed by Pallas Brilliant Investment and Development Co Ltd – a company that claims to be developing resorts in Thailand and Vietnam as well.
According to Ministry of Commerce records, Pallas was founded in November 2015, with Kim Hourn’s wife Khem Rany as its chairperson. Those same records give the company’s registered address as the University of Cambodia, where Kim Hourn is president.
The email address the company was registered to belongs to a Ban Chenda, director of programming at Southeast Asia Television, founded by Kim Hourn.
Contacted by the Post yesterday, Chenda said that he had merely loaned his email address as a stop gap while his colleague Chan Sreyroth, a University of Cambodia employee, registered the business for Kim Hourn.
Sreyroth yesterday confirmed that she registered the company, along with Pallas Mega Construction, at Kim Hourn’s behest.
While Kim Hourn did not respond to requests for comment yesterday, the government documents show that it will develop 70 percent of the land for the tourism development, while 30 percent will be given to the provincial government for administrative purposes.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Kampot provincial cabinet official said the odds of construction beginning this year as promised were slim.
“It is not possible to start the project this year, it’s just the advertising in order to seek for investing partners for the project, they have to conduct an environmental impact assessment and submit it to us first. They need to fulfil many procedures before submitting it,” the official said. “There are many projects that are approved by the government but never work out.”
A Council for Development of Cambodia (CDC) official said that he was recently informed of the project but that it had yet to be submitted for official review. Until it is submitted and approved, he said, the project would not be able to begin construction.
Regardless of whether construction does begin, observers inside and out of government said Minister Kim Hourn’s involvement raised the spectre of a potential conflict of interest.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, the government organ that green-lighted the project on October 12, said that while he was not familiar with the case, government employees are prohibited from having business interests which demand their full-time attention or where they create a conflict of interest with their official role.
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said yesterday that Cambodian legislation lacks a proper definition of conflict of interest, but that by most generally accepted definitions this case would appear to fit the bill.
“The wife of government [officials] can do the business,” Sam Oeun said. “Government officials have had a low salary for a long, long time; so he has to survive from his wife.”
“They do not understand clearly about conflict of interest, [the legislation] only says about [whether the interest] is incompatible with [their] job or function,” he added.
Contacted last night, Land Management Minister Chea Sophara said that Kim Hourn’s wife Khem Rany resigned as chairperson earlier this month – shortly before the Council of Ministers green-lighted the project – to be replaced by a Meang Chanthy, who he could offer no further information on and was unreachable for comment.
Although the Ministry of Commerce still records Rany as the company’s chair, Sophara’s claim was seconded by Tourism Minister Thong Khon.
Even if Rany has indeed stepped down, her fellow founding director Siriluck Choochart was listed as company vice president in a press release issued by the company yesterday.
No further information was available on Choochart. However, a number listed in the press release was answered by a man who declined to give his name but did say that the company had been taken over by a Dubai-based investor.
“We used to be based in Dubai but now we are here,” he said, adding that all shareholders had “good experience in developing projects in Dubai”.
The website listed in the press release makes a similar boast but fails to name a single previous employer or successful venture for any of its nine-strong “renowned team”.