Outrage over the renaming of a casino built on historic Bokor Mountain drew a swift reaction from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who unilaterally overturned the Ministry of Commerce’s approval of the rebrand and ordered the removal of all new resort signage on Saturday.
Thansur Bokor Highland Resort, a massive hotel and casino development in Kampot Province’s Preah Monivong National Park, will keep its name despite its owner’s attempt to rebrand it as Sokha Thansur Resort.
The name change became public in early September, but did not begin generating social media backlash – much of it racially tinged – until last week. Many social media commenters expressed fear that the change would lead to a loss of national identity, and was an attempt on the part of the resort owner, ethnically Vietnamese tycoon Sok Kong, to whitewash Cambodian history.
Some users appeared to wrongly conflate the change in the name of the new resort, which opened in 2012, to a change in the name of the national park as a whole. The park is named after King Sisowath Monivong, who died on Bokor Mountain in 1941, giving the site both historical and royal significance.
Following the outcry, Hun Sen ordered Kampot’s governor to remove the signage via his Facebook page on Saturday morning, saying the “historic area must keep its original name” and thanking “national compatriots” for bringing the issue to his attention.
By late Saturday morning, a coalition of police and military police had removed all traces of signage bearing the new name and social media had been edited to reflect the change.
Reached yesterday, Kong said he would not fight the prime minister’s decision, but pointed out that the Ministry of Commerce granted his company permission to change the name of the resort.
Kong said his intention was to change the name of the resort to match his other properties – Sokha Beach Resort in Sihanoukville, Sokha Phnom Penh Hotel and Sokha Siem Reap Resort – all named after his wife.
“This [place] is Sokha’s. That is Sokha’s also. Is this to forget the history?” he asked.
The Ministry of Commerce acknowledged Saturday that it had granted permission to Kong to use the name “Sokha Hotel Co Ltd”, but maintained it was intended only for the company, not for the resort.
Analysts said yesterday the case highlighted some of the bitter mistrust of Vietnamese that still runs through many Cambodians, as well as the political style of Hun Sen, who has been known to wade into controversy to score political points.
San Chey, country director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said many Cambodians are fearful of purported Vietnamese attempts to permeate the country, both figuratively and literally.
In 2015, spurred by rumours that Vietnamese tourists were taking over Bokor Mountain for religious ceremonies, lawmakers and officials led an investigation to try to stop the practice.
“They worry that this name could be forgotten by the next generation,” Chey said.
Political analyst Meas Nee, meanwhile, said the prime minister’s seemingly unilateral decisions are “confusing” the public and erasing the distinction between himself, the CPP and the government.
He likened Hun Sen’s swift reaction to the name change to his unilateral defence of controversial broadcaster ABC Radio after the Health Ministry tried to impound the radio station’s unlicensed ambulances last year.
“We are not sure whether the speeches or statements made by the prime minister are his own views . . . or representative of his government, or representative of his party,” Nee said.
Additional reporting by Daphne Chen