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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Plan to build new Siem Reap port stalled by protests

Plan to build new Siem Reap port stalled by protests

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A huge billboard depicts what could be the future of Chong Kneas.

A $2 million plan to develop a "tourist port" south of Siem Reap town in

the floating village of Chong Kneas has stalled because of opposition from the people

who live there.

The project was approved by the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) in

May, but when a South Korean investment company began bringing in its bulldozers

later that month, the villagers erupted by blocking the gates. They said it was the

first they'd heard of the tourist port.

Now, eight months after receiving the green light from the CDC, the Sou Ching Investment

Co. Ltd project appears dead in the water.

"When the Sou Ching Company got their license, they did not talk to the people

or the community leaders," said Minh Bunly, project officer for the Fisheries

Action Coalition Team (FACT) a local NGO which works with fishing communities. "There

is currently no solution to the problem."

Bunly said that many of the residents of the village make a living taking tourists

out onto the Tonle Sap lake, but the tourist port would do away with that and set

up a centralized boat rental system where all tourists would go through Sou Ching.

Bunly said the company hasn't been trying to solve the problem fairly. "Now

there is no activity on the company's part," he said. "They refuse to negotiate

with the people. The people are very angry."

The company could not be reached for comment.

According to Korean-language media reports, Sou Ching Port Investment is part of

a large investment fund established by two major Korean companies - SK Securities

and Golden Bridge Asset Management.

In September the two companies established the first of two planned funds to invest

in Cambodia with a focus on developing tourist infrastructure.

Although details of the investments were not disclosed, SK Securities asset manager,

Yim Yeo Ngijin, was quoted as saying that the companies were expecting returns on

their investment of up to $1 trillion. He described the Sou Ching Port Investment

as part of a "cultural exchange package."

Sou Ching received approval May 4, 2007 in a letter from Suon Sethy, secretary general

of the Cambodian Investment Board, which is part of the CDC. The letter stated that

the Sou Ching company's office in Tnal village, Sronger commune, Siem Reap province,

proved it had necessary capital investment of $2.7 million and it could begin construction

immediately.

The company moved several old yellow bulldozers into the area and put up billboards

depicting the architectural plans.

According to an April 2007 tourism working group meeting at the Ministry of Tourism

(MoT), about 60,000 tourists now visit the Chong Kneas area each month in high season.

By charging $1 dollar per tourist, the working group estimated that revenues of $120,000

every two months could be achieved rapidly.

Sou Ching requested the rights to invest in road construction, channel restoration

and to charge a toll fee, parking fee, and pier fee. The company also asked to charge

an entrance fee to the Tonle Sap. The MoT said these requests, especially the entrance

fee, were "a problem."

The port issue came up most recently at a tourism working group meeting at the MoT

on August 7th, where the MoT noted that 'Sou Ching' company had been granted these

rights and obtained its concession on the basis it would also develop the area by

building a road and a new port.

The MoT voiced concern that, as of August, Sou Ching was already charging tourists

$1 per visit but no infrastructure development had occurred.

The proposed port spans several communes including Chong Kneas commune and Siem Reap

commune in the Phnom Krom area.

Siem Reap governor Sou Phirin has given his seal of approval to the port. His approval

is contained in official correspondence dated May 21 in which Phirin answered a letter

from the developer's director Ros Chhoudeth saying the provincial authorities supported

the project. Chhoudeth's letter was asking for help with the "illegal occupation

of the concerned area" - in other words - evictions.

"Sou Ching can start port construction in the Chong Kneas area," the letter

from the governor said. "But we suggest the establishment of a provincial coalition

committee in order to make sure construction goes smoothly."

Such a committee was set up May 25, according to documents obtained by the Post.

But no villagers are on it. The committee includes Siem Reap deputy Chan Sophal,

other members linked to the provincial government and Sou Ching officials.

An official from the CDC who asked not to be identified, said that just because the

CDC approves of the new port doesn't mean that Sou Ching has the right to evict residents

from the area against their will. "They must find a solution to this problem

that is in accordance with the law," the official said. "Their license

to develop the port is not equivalent to an official deed to the land in question."

The residents of the floating village said they oppose the port because it will damage

the area's flooded forests and rice fields.

They live mostly in small one-room wooden boats. They could move the boats, but they

are worried the developer will either block them from moving in and out or make them

pay if they want to enter or leave the new port area.

They said that if the company's port monopolizes the tourist trade it would put them

out of work. They also said the larger boats that the port would cater to could damage

their floating houses with their wake and make it dangerous for small boats to navigate

the entrance to the Tonle Sap Lake.

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