The head of the country's deepwater seaport has said it will likely cut tariffs
in June this year. Sihanoukville Port's director-general, Lou Kim Chhun, said
that was in part down to increased competition in the region.
"We need to
compare the tariff to the other ports near here," he said.
sector has long complained that high port charges act as a significant brake on
the Kingdom's competitiveness. Private sector groups have held regular meetings
with government over the past year to push for cuts.
Even without the
'unofficial fees' charged by its staff, Sihanoukville is the most expensive port
in the region.
For example, it is four times more costly than similar
'feeder' ports such as Songkhla in Bangkok. In 2000, the Cambodian port
collected an average $5.28 per ton of cargo handled compared with just $1.81 at
For that reason, say industry figures, the official costs
attached to Sihanoukville also need to be tackled. Preben Hartvig Andersen works
for shipping company MCC, and is also a board member of the International
Business Club. He said reform was vital for the country to become competitive
and attract foreign investment.
"The margins in shipping are wafer thin.
Eighty percent of a shipping line's port cost is in the handling of cargo - that
is in the crane lifts," he said.
"Cambodia's port is one of the most
expensive around when you compare it to Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Thailand, and
so on. The government's focus has been on reducing any 'no receipt' money, which
is very important, but at the same time it is hard to trace, find and reduce.
The official tariff is too high, so it would be another place to make fast cost
Kim Chhun said the number of ships docking at Sihanoukville
had dropped from 825 to 817 last year, but said that was offset by a higher
number of containers handled. Although he accepted tariffs were high, he felt
the quality of service had improved dramatically.
The port operation has
long caught the eye of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), whose transport
spokesman, Son Chhay, is critical of the lack of transparency.
budget documents are very unclear on the port revenue," Chhay said. "We expect
that the auditor-general will conduct some investigation into the
The fact remains that the state-run enterprise is highly
profitable. In 2000 it generated 33 billion riel ($8.5 million) in revenue. Half
of that was retained as pre-tax income.
A competitiveness study conducted
by the Ministry of Commerce, the World Bank and other agencies last year stated
that such a high figure suggested "the government is extracting a very high rate
of return, given the port's position as the main international port in the
Son Chhay said he suspects that the money raised will be used
to fund the election campaign of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), a
claim sharply rejected by Kim Chhun.
"I also saw this on Khmer
Intelligence [an email service distributing unsourced political information],"
he said. "We give nothing to the CPP. We cannot because all our income appears
on the receipts. We have the proof."
The email service, whose news runs
from official comment to unsourced rumor, alleged the port authorities "help the
CPP buy votes by distributing 'Donations from the Port' in the form of food and
money to villagers in the three districts and 22 communes of Sihanoukville
"Yes I'm a member of the CPP, but that is my right," Kim
Chhun said, "but I work for the port and the nation".
The need for
improvement, though, has been recognized by government for years. At a private
sector forum in December 1999, Prime Minister Hun Sen singled out the port for
"Customs officials routinely start work at 3:00 pm and finish at
5:00 pm, and in some places [investors] spend $2,000-$4,000 for [clearance to
ship] a container," the PM said, adding that customs and Camcontrol officials
"no longer have the right to be 'King of Pochentong [Airport]' and 'King of
But reform has been slow. The high level of 'hidden
costs' at the port again drew criticism at the March 2002 private sector
At the forum Hun Sen promised a working group would examine the
costs. While the private sector has continued to lobby for change, critics say
the management structure has prevented reform.
The port's board of
directors is headed by Kim Chhun, which Son Chhay said would not boost
accountability as it mixes the executive with the oversight body.
Chhun rejected that, saying the structure was not only common in other
countries, but had proven more efficient here.
"It is usual
internationally for the [chief executive officer] to be chairman of the board,"