AN opposition legislator says the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MPWT) decision
to privatize Cambodia's National Route 4 has been marred by corruption.
On March 26, the MPWT confirmed that it had granted an open-ended concession for
the maintenance of Route 4 to AZ Distribution Co. for an unspecified annual fee.
In return, AZ has been granted the right to construct four toll booths along the
length of Route 4 at the intersection of Route 4 and Pochentong Boulevard, Kampong
Speu town, the Sre Ambel turn-off, and on the perimeter of Sihanoukville.
Each toll booth will charge approximately $1 a car, with a Phnom Penh-Sihanoukville
journey costing a total of $4 in tolls. Tolls for motorcycles and other vehicles
have not yet been announced. Twenty-percent of all tolls are earmarked for the government's
national road reconstruction fund.
The government plans to have the toll system in place sometime after the upcoming
Khmer New Year.
Son Chhay, Chairperson of the National Assembly's Public Works, Transport, Telecommunications,
Post, Industry, Energy and Commerce Committee, says the concession granting procedure
had been corrupt.
"We are against this agreement [and] we have asked the Council of Ministers
to revoke the contract because the agreement was reached in a corrupt manner,"
Chhay said, adding that a letter he has written urging Hun Sen to revoke the contract
was sent on March 29.
Chhay accused Tram Iv Tek, MPWT Secretary of State (CPP), of drafting the concession
agreement without informing MPWT Minister Khy Tang Lim (Fun). Instead, Chhay says,
Iv Tek passed the concession agreement directly to Sok An for approval.
According to Chhay, when asked by Chhay's committee about the Route 4 concession
agreement, Taing Lim said he knew nothing about it.
Iv Tek refused to comment on the AZ concession agreement, saying only that negotiations
with the company were ongoing.
"We can't explain this until the contract is finalized," Iv Tek said.
The AZ Distribution Co is no stranger for controversy. Telecom industry observers
have already expressed concern about the government's decision to allow AZ to form
a partnership with the government-owned Cambodia Telecom.
Formerly known as Bun Hoaw & AZ Distributions Co, the company has no telecommunications
experience and the contract was handed down directly from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The company reportedly changed its name one month ahead of the announced partnership
to thwart speculation about its possible high-level connections.
The terms of the Route 4 contract are also confusing and contradictory, referring
to the concession as a Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) deal.
"BOT means a road must be built in order to give travellers the choice of paying
to travel on a smooth road or not paying to take a bumpy road," Chhay said.
"But National Route 4 already exists, so referring to it as BOT is completely
wrong...we don't know why they've referred to it as BOT."
The BOT terms of the concession also contradict the phrasing of the Feb 16 letter
signed by Sok An authorizing AZ to "...maintain, repair and service..."
Meas Samith, the MPWT's Deputy Inspector General, agreed that a BOT agreement suggested
that AZ had been commissioned to build a new Route 4.
But whether AZ rebuilds Route 4 or merely maintains it, Samith said that the privatization
of Route 4 would be welcomed if it ended the numerous illegal police and military
toll points that routinely shake down taxis for cash. His only cautionary note was
that AZ consult with the United States government, who funded Route 4's reconstruction
in 1996, regarding any major work on the highway.
Chay Kheng, Deputy director of Kampong Speu's Public Work and Transport Department
also supported the privatization of Route 4.
"I believe that a private company will be more successful in eliminating the
overloaded trucks which are destroying the road's surface," Kheng said.
Repeated Post attempts to contact both Khy Taing Lim and representatives of AZ Distribution
Co. for comment were unsuccessful.