NagaCorp, the parent company of Phnom Penh’s NagaWorld casino, has confirmed that it is eyeing land occupied by the Buddhist Institute for a new hotel development, a revelation that comes mere months after the government proclaimed in no uncertain terms that the institute was there to stay.
The expression of interest, made in a conference call with NagaCorp investors on August 7, confirms the suspicions of activist monks, but the government says no concrete proposal has come its way.
Philip Lee, chief financial officer of NagaCorp, told investors and analysts during the August conference call that the company had plans for Naga3 – a hotel without gaming operations – which, if approved, would result in relocating the Buddhist Institute not far from its current location.
“Now, it is important to note that … presently Naga3 is very much in planning. It is conceptual. We are in discussions with the authorities to develop that location,” Lee is quoted as saying in the call’s transcript, which has since been removed from the company’s website.
“So we are working – we have proposed or at least to build Naga3, which will comprise – in the centre, you see that pyramidal kind of structure.… And on the left of it, the white structure would be the new office of the Buddhist Institute.”
Yesterday, Mark Brown, chief operating officer of NagaWorld, said the company was in talks with the Cambodian government over the land.
“For Naga3, the image is our dream and does not represent actual event,” Brown told the Post via email.
“We hope we can convince the government to grant the rights of usage of the land, which unfortunately, has not been obtained yet.”
NagaCorp’s negotiations with the government over the institute’s land come as the company nears finishing its NagaWalk retail project along Sihanouk Boulevard and as construction continues on the $370 million Naga2 project, which is slated for completion in early 2017.
Both of the gaming firm’s construction sites now entirely surround the Buddhist Institute.
NagaCorp’s expansion has long fuelled rumours that the institute’s land is slowly being sold off to accommodate the casino operator’s proposals.
But Sar Sokny, acting director of the Buddhist Institute, told the Post yesterday he had not yet been approached nor was he aware of NagaCorp’s development ambitions for Naga3.
Chea Vuthy, deputy secretary-general of the Cambodian Investment Board, a department of the Council for the Development of Cambodia, which approves projects, also said he was unaware of the plans.
Seng Somony, a spokesman for the Ministry of Cult and Religion, which oversees the work of the institute, said he was too busy to comment yesterday.
In May, members of the activist Independent Monks Network, who believed that the institute would be moved, held demonstrations, basing their actions on construction at the site that the government said was part of an electricity substation.
During the march, Somony personally attempted to stop the monks, brandishing copies of documents detailing exactly what the government had agreed to with NagaCorp.
“If NagaWorld does not follow this contract, I myself will bring all of you to protest in front of NagaWorld,” he said at the time.
The substation will, however, be used to power part of the casino’s new development plans across the street, but the government hasn’t sold or leased any of its land, the ministry said.
While the protests stopped, the monks in June called on the Ministry of Cult and Religion to release all the paperwork proving that an agreement it struck with NagaCorp to help construct the substation does not involve the selling of any of the centre’s land to the casino.
Contacted yesterday, Independent Monk Network leader But Buntenh said he had heard about the Naga3 project from staffers at the institute. They allegedly told him that the new office would be moved to Chhbar Ampov district.
“If the government approves it, we will have a big protest against the land of the Buddhist Institute being sold to the gambling company,” he said.
“The ambition of them is to swallow the land step by step … and if there is no public protest or any reaction, they will grab all the land.”