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Sparks fly over US Wat Phnom embassy plan

Sparks fly over US Wat Phnom embassy plan

THE Phnom Penh office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural

Organization (UNESCO) is expressing concern over the announced intentions of the

United States Government to acquire the International Youth Club property adjacent

to Wat Phnom as the site for a new US Embassy compound.

The Aug 7 announcement by American Ambassador Kent Weidemann that the International

Youth Club site, built in 1929 as the French Protectorate era's Cercle Sportif, was

a "strong contender" as the location for a new US Embassy is viewed by

UNESCO as a critical erosion of the "cultural and historical integrity"

of Phnom Penh.

"The old Cercle Sportif location is a cultural site and an important part of

Phnom Penh's urban heritage," Teruo Jinnai, UNESCO's Culture Programme Specialist,

said in reference to announced American intentions to raze the old Cercle Sportif

structure to erect a new embassy. "It's a part of Phnom Penh which has a value

and importance to the people due to both its location and its history."

Jinnai suggested that any agreement between Phnom Penh municipal authorities and

the US Government over the use of the old Cercle Sportif be conditional upon US guarantees

of historical preservation and public access.

"Ideally the municipality should impose conditions for the maintenance of the

site," Jinnai said. "The municipality should also oblige the Americans

to have 'open days' for public access as is customary for embassies located in historical

sites in Europe."

US Ambassador Kent Weide-mann told the Post that though the Wat Phnom site was just

one of "eight or ten possible sites under consideration" for the new embassy,

the area's cultural and historical value was a major attraction to American decision-makers.

"The US Government normally likes to put US embassies in nice, historical districts

... to reflect the dignity and stature of the [United States] and our respect for

the country in which [the embassy] is located," Weidemann said.

However, Weidemann made it clear that preservation of the old Cercle Sportif site

was not a priority.

"I don't see that as interesting to my Government or the Cambodians," Weidemann

said of suggestions that the old Cercle Sportif site was an important part of Phnom

Penh's urban heritage. "It may be [of interest] to the French, but their Protectorate

status was willingly forfeited in 1953."

A Phnom Penh-based cultural consultant who specializes in Phnom Penh's historical

architecture also expressed doubts about the practicality of trying to preserve the

old Cercle Sportif building.

"The building has been progressively ruined through the years," the consultant

told the Post. "The private investors who took over the building in the mid-nineties

demolished the top of the building where there was elegant lattice work and decorative

motifs, reducing it to an ugly box."

Jinnai also expressed reservations about the suitability of a high-security American

embassy complex adjacent to Wat Phnom.

"Security-wise I personally feel that [Wat Phnom] is not the best site for the

US Embassy, as thousands of people congregate at Wat Phnom during holidays and festivals"

Jinnai said. "American security considerations might also call for the partial

closure of Street 96, which is a very important boulevard."

Weidemann assured the Post that any future American embassy built on the Cercle Sportif

site would not affect either traffic flow or public access near Wat Phnom.

"The sanctity of Wat Phnom is being taken very, very seriously," he said.

"I guarantee you that in terms of the architecture of the [embassy] building,

traffic patterns and security the embassy would not downgrade the aesthetic environment

around Wat Phnom."

Instead, Weidemann said the US Government would employ architects to design an embassy

complex "compatible with the surrounding environment".

Such news is welcomed by the Phnom Penh-based cultural consultant, who praises St.

96 between Monivong Boulevard and Wat Phnom as one of the last areas in Phnom Penh

were "the vision of the old French quartier" is still clearly discernible.

"The question is, will a new American Embassy on the old Cercle Sportif site

echo the elegance of the avenue or will they put up their barricades and ruin it?"

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