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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Landmark hotel in the firing line

Landmark hotel in the firing line

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The historic Hotel Renakse is at the center of an acrimonious legal tussle between the former owner and powerful members of the ruling CPP, and its fate still hangs in the balance.

Photo by:

TRACEY SHELTON

The historic Hotel Renakse was shrouded Thursday by tarps and netting, and behind razor wire as its fate hangs in the balance. 

The current state of the hotel renakse dispute

Kem Chantha's lawyer, Chong Iv Heng, said in an interview this week that he had yet to receive any information regarding his client's case in Phnom Penh Municipal Court, which was filed after she was removed from the hotel and banned from the premises January 6. "We have still not heard anything from the court yet, so we are still waiting," he said. "If they do not cancel the [January 6 ruling issued by Ke Sakhorn], I will appeal." In an interview with the Post January 18, Kem Chantha said workers contracted by the municipality had begun demolishing the hotel, but these claims have been difficult to verify, as officials have declined to discuss the present condition of the building and their plans for it. No workers were present at the hotel Wednesday morning. The gate to the hotel was locked, and a sign posted on a white piece of paper outside the gate warned passersby against entering the hotel compound. A blue tarp covered both the hotel itself and the fence surrounding it. SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua publicly called on officials to preserve the hotel, saying, "There has been enough destruction of national landmarks in the city of Phnom Penh." 

AS the legal dispute over the Hotel Renakse sits unresolved in Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Kem Chantha, the hotel's former manager, has taken the fight to other fronts.

In the past three-and-a-half weeks, she has waged a campaign to prevent the French colonial-era building's demolition and secure her reinstatement as manager, attempting to enlist support from potential allies in the government, the international community and the media.  

Her efforts, she said in recent interviews with the Post, have included:

  • Distribution of additional copies of a January 15 letter by Unesco Country Representative Teruo Jinnai arguing that the building should be preserved for the sake of the city's urban heritage;
  • A January 4 meeting with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng, which she claimed led to a petition urging Prime Minister Hun Sen to save the building from demolition. Sar Kheng could not be reached Wednesday to answer questions about the meeting or to confirm it had occurred;
  • And rounds of interviews with reporters, during which she has stressed that corrupt officials want to oust her from the building she managed for nearly two decades without going through the proper legal channels or providing her with adequate compensation.

Having been banned from the hotel since January 6 - when police and officials removed guests, staff and Kem Chantha herself from the premises - she no longer has an office, which she said makes it difficult to arrange meetings. But she vowed to continue to press both for the preservation of the hotel and her reinstatement as manager.

Comparing her own plight to that of the families forcibly removed from Dey Krahorm, she suggested the government would have a more difficult time getting rid of her than it did evicting the community's residents, whose homes were demolished last Saturday by workers using bulldozers and hammers.

"They tried to use power and guns to force me to take this money," she said, referring to a US$200,000 compensation offer made by Alexson Inc, which has purchased the hotel for $3.8 million. "But I'm not like those small settlement houses."

Official (non)response

Officials involved in Kem Chantha's removal from the hotel and its sale to Alexson would not answer questions this week on the current state of the dispute.

Ke Sakhorn, the judge who issued the January 6 order evicting her from the hotel, could not be reached for comment. Min Khin, minister of cults and religions who allegedly arranged for the sale of the hotel, declined to make himself available for an interview despite repeated requests. And Khiev Sepphan, the CPP lawyer handling the sale, declined to comment on the case beyond saying "it is a very complicated issue".

Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said the reticence of the officials might reflect their desire to avoid interfering in a legal case currently before the court.

They tried to use power and guns to force me to take this money, but i'm not like those settlement houses.

But he said they did just that at least once before when they carried out the order to remove Kem Chantha from the hotel.

"That was not the right thing for them to do," he said. "If a case is brought to the court, then only when that case has been decided can officials do that."

Regardless of whether officials interfere, Kem Chantha said the court's actions so far - in particular, the issuing of the order that barred her from the hotel's premises - have exposed its inability to resolve the case fairly. She said any ruling would be compromised by the fact that Ching Sokuntheavy, the company director of Alexson, is married to the nephew of Ke Sakhorn, the judge.

"They make decisions without proof and not in accordance with the law," she said of the courts.

She said she has several documents - including letters from top CPP officials - that prove she should be reinstated as manager, but she said the court will likely ignore them.

She said her only hope is for Hun Sen to intervene on her behalf, but she said she had not heard from him regarding the case since he wrote in an August 28 letter that authorities should "seek an appropriate resolution to this matter".   

Outside parties who have argued that the hotel should be saved have expressed a reluctance to weigh in on whether Kem Chantha should be reinstated as manager.

Teruo Jinnai of Unesco said pressing for her reinstatement would go beyond his organisation's "mandate".

"We are working in the field of education, and we have expertise we can offer," he said. "When it comes to a contract, this is not our mandate."

SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who wrote a letter earlier this month urging the CPP to preserve the building, said the particulars of the dispute between Kem Chantha and CPP officials did not interest her.

"I'm not looking at the case," she said. "I'm looking at this national treasure. It is one of the few we have left, and it must be preserved."

A long engagement

Kem Chantha said she first became interested in the hotel when she began working for the Ministry of Tourism in 1986. She signed a five-year lease on the hotel in 1989, she said, and immediately began refurbishing the building, a process that involved repairing the dilapidated walls and roof.

She said she changed the original five-year lease to a 20-year lease in 1992 because she wanted to make sure she would be in charge of the hotel long enough to see a return on her investment.  

In 2001, she said, she signed a lease that lasted until 2050.

Several documents pertaining to the ongoing legal case indicate that she planned to remain in the hotel for years, if not decades, to come. In a letter sent last month to Chea Sim, president of the CPP and president of the Senate, she wrote of her plan to turn the Renakse into a luxury hotel as part of the Amanresorts chain, which operates a resort near Angkor Wat. A company spokesman could not be reached for comment this week.

She said she repeatedly poured her own money into the 35-room hotel, which she said had seven rooms when she first took control of it.

Asked to quantify the amount she has spent on renovations to the hotel over the years, however, Kem Chantha said she could produce no receipts verifying the payments.

She said she had also been making payments towards the purchase of the hotel during her tenure as manager, though she said she could not remember how many payments she made, how much they were worth or when she stopped making them.  

She also declined to say whether any amount of potential compensation would be enough to persuade her to rescind her claim to the hotel.

But she did say that $200,000 - the amount Alexson offered to pay her in October 2008 for breaking her lease - was insufficient.

"It's very bad," she said of the offer.

RENAKSE takeover

  • December 29-30  Police enter the hotel compound, and municipal officials inspect the building, which they say has fallen into severe disrepair
  • January 6 Acting on an order issued by Ke Sakhorn, police evict guests, staff and manager Kem Chantha from the hotel, removing pipes and fittings in the process
  • January 15  Unesco Country Director Teruo Jinnai sends a letter to Minister of Cults and Religions Min Khin arguing that the Renakse should be preserved for the sake of Phnom Penh's urban heritage
  • January 18 In an interview with the Post, Kem Chantha says workers contracted by the municipality have begun demolishing the hotel
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