TEN months ago, the dilapidated Olympic Stadium complex in central Phnom Penh
was the centerpiece of a rehabilitation plan that was to transform the site into
a state-of-the-art melding of public and private development.
With the stroke of a pen, the government sealed a deal for the repair of the sports
facil-ities in exchange for commercial development of the surrounding area.
Silent, empty stadium grounds await the promised redevelopment that looks as far off as the distant horizon.
Now after almost a year of confusing public flip-flops on the merits of the project,
Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Chea Sophara has denounced the controversial stadium
development as "a big scandal", calling it illegal and technically unfeasible.
Rajesh Kumar and Lon Nara investigate.
In June, 2000 Prime Minister Hun Sen inked a deal with Taiwan's Yuan Ta Construction
and Engineering Co to commercially develop the land around the 40-year-old, 12 hectare
stadium site in exchange for a $1.6 million renovation of the crumbling edifice
The project plans included the construction of two hotels, a shopping mall, residential/commercial
units, an entertainment center-cum-restaurant, a supermarket/office building and
two parking lots at a total cost of US$40 million.
Announcing that construction on the site was imminent, the Phnom Penh municipality
sealed off the site on July 27, 2000 to thousands of city residents who used the
facilities each day. Their anger and disappointment was only slightly mollified by
municipal government assurances that the renovations would only take one year.
Yuan Ta, however, apparently had no intention of doing the work on its own, and showed
no hint that it was interested in meeting the construction deadline it had undertaken
with the government.
The Olympic Stadium in former glorious times with 100,000 people welcoming former French President Charles de Gaulle to Cambodia.
Only in February 2001, seven months after public access to the Stadium was blocked,
did Yuan Ta subcontract the renovation work to Cambodia's Kosal Engineering Co.
Kosal now says it is highly unlikely that the renovation work will be completed before
2002, with the commercial development estimated to take another four years.
"We signed the US$1.6 million contract for renovation in February and have committed
to finish the work by February 2002," Mom Kosal told the Post, adding that another
yet-to-be engaged sub-contractor will be responsible for work on the site's perimeter.
Secrecy and flip-flops
Governor Chea Sophara's opposition to the project at this stage, nearly one year
after the deal was signed and long after the drawings of the building plans were
reportedly submitted to the municipal government, is just the latest convulsion in
a project dogged by controversy since its inception.
After initially expressing support for the development plan when it was unveiled
in June, 2000, Sophara lashed out at Yuan Ta in February for failing to begin work
on the project and for allegedly attempting to sell plots of adjacent land to the
Chinese Association of Cambodia.
But a week later, Sophara issued a public statement re-affirming his support for
the project and his confidence in Yuan Ta's ability to execute it.
However, in an April 5 Post interview, Sophara said the municipal government never
saw the blueprints for the Yuan Ta project until they were shown to him by the Post.
He asked the Post to provide photocopies of the drawings so that he could study them.
Municipal officials, however, maintain on condition of anonymity that the plans were
in fact submitted to them and duly forwarded to the Ministry of Urbanization and
Construction (MUC) after being personally approved by Sophara.
Sophara now says that the approval process for the stadium project illegally circumvented
zoning laws that require any project of over 3,000 square meters to be approved first
by the municipal government and then by the Ministry of Urbanization and Construction
(MUC). Instead, Sophara says that he was bypassed and the stadium development project
was approved directly and solely by the MUC.
Sophara's account of the official building project approval process was confirmed
by a town planner consulted by the Post. The town planner said government regulations
specifically decree that any building plans first go to the municipal government's
land management department, which scrutinizes the land title, viability of the location
and ensures its compliance with the zoning rules.
"Following this, the electricity, water, sewerage and engineering departments
evaluate the project before sending it to the municipal governor for final approval.
If the project is for over 3,000 square meters, the governor is supposed to pass
on the plans to the MUC," the town planner said.
According to Sophara, the municipality was only made privy to broad details of the
stadium project during consultations held by the ministries of Education, Youth &
Sports, and Urbanization & Construction in late 2000. Municipal concerns voiced
at the consultations, he says, were ignored.
"The [municipal government's] objections [to the project] were pointed out at
each meeting of the council of ministers, but were never taken into consideration,"
MUC officials refused all comment on the stadium project.
Sophara says his concerns about the project then prompted him to dispatch his deputy,
Seng Tong, to protest the project's "crass commercialization" of the city's
public land and the country's sole Olympic-class sports facility at a Council of
Ministers meeting soon after the plans were finalized in December, 2000.
Seng Tong said that the municipality's opposition to the stadium project stemmed
from the technical advice of both Cambodian and foreign experts, who had warned that
it would further add to city's traffic congestion.
"On the basis of this advice alone, we had asked the ministries not to allow
the construction," Tong told the Post.
Sophara is also critical of the project's mixture of commercial development with
public sports facilities.
"Cambodia is perhaps the only country to allow construction of hotels, shopping
malls and residences [literally] next door to a national stadium," he said.
"I have not come across any such example anywhere else in the world...it goes
against the concept of sports."
Sophara also says the project violates municipal city beautification plans that called
for a green belt around the stadium in what is now one of the city's most congested
and polluted areas.
Mission impossible Engineers consulted by the Post criticized the project for alleged
technical design flaws.
An engineer familiar with the project said Yuan Ta's initial plan was riddled with
According to the engineer, Yuan Ta had not allocated adequate space for the project's
residential construction "...unless the company eats into the volleyball court
or the pavement outside it," adding that a senior municipal planning official
had actually turned down a similar plan two years previously.
Experts also critique the project for its failure to address the existence of huge
sewage lagoons around the perimeter of the stadium site.
Yuan Ta's plan, which calls for the lagoons to be covered and the water flow rerouted
away from the stadium, will require the construction of sewer mains that engineers
say will cost much more than Yuan Ta's initial estimates of US$2 million.
Following the money
The financing of the stadium project has also been marred by controversy.
Yuan Ta's failure to follow through on the project has been linked to financial problems
within the company, which reportedly prompted its ill-fated attempts in February
to secretly re-sell adjacent properties.
Sources close to the project say Yuan Ta engaged a third Taiwanese investor, Chen
Hwa Lin, to supply US$14 million of the total US$40 million project cost.
Accounts of the project's technical glitches apparently prompted Chen to back out
and Yuan Ta is reportedly planning to sue Chen in a Taipei court for breach of contract.
The details of the financial agreement between Yuan Ta and the government are also
shrouded in mystery. While the land around the stadium has been given to Yuan Ta
by the government free-of-cost for the US$40 million project, Yuan Ta is paying Kosal
only US$1.6 million for the renovation.
Another US$2 million is to be spent for covering up the sewage lagoons and channeling
the sewage away from stadium. Whether the municipal government is supposed to have
any share in either the remaining $36.4 million or from proceeds of future sales
or rentals of properties built on the site is unclear.
Repeated Post attempts to contact Phnom Penh-based Yuan Ta spokesmen for comment
on the project were unsuccessful
Companies contracted by Yuan Ta are also fuming at its failure to honor its contractual
Kosal Engineering Co.'s (KEC) one-year contract with Yuan Ta signed in February to
renovate the stadium's sports facilities specified phased payments according to the
progress of the renovation work. Those payments, KEC Director Mom Kosal says, are
not being made.
"I've already spent around US$100,000 on the initial renovations, but the payment
has not come through as yet," Kosal said.
A visit by the Post to the stadium site, however, cast doubt on Kosal's claims of
the extensive and costly work he's undertaken.
Besides the removal of some old tiles near the main entrance , the cleaning of aluminum
cladding on the stadium's facade and the application of a fresh coat of paint on
the gymnasium and stadium office block, the site is in arguably more decrepit a state
than it was in June, 2000.
Masonry work has barely begun and the swimming pool, once crowded with families on
weekends prior to the closure of the site in July, 2000, now more resembles the sewage
lagoons on the facility's perimeter. Kosal has in turn withheld payment to his laborers.
Sok Yath, a worker at the site, said she and her seven colleagues from Svay Rieng
province were promised 6,000 riel daily when they began work in early March but had
not yet been paid.
Sport remains the biggest loser in the ongoing wrangle.
With the sale of the old Youth Club facility to the American government for development
of a new US Embassy on Nov 29, 2000, Phnom Penh now lacks any affordable public swimming
Other exercise enthusiasts have had to scramble for extremely limited alternatives
like the Old Stadium, where the main playing ground is reserved only for national
or international matches.
Em Rasmei, an Anouwat High School student and an aspirant for Cambodia's national
soccer team, said the lack of recreational space at his school made the Olympic Stadium
his regular practice ground. Now, he and his fellow soccer enthusiasts have been
forced to use the far more inferior space in front of the national museum.
"...it is....too small as several other school teams take up different corners
for their practice [on the same day]. And if the place is taken up for any ceremony,
we cannot practice at all," he said.
Mao Vanna, a teenage basketball enthusiast who regularly hit the Olympic Stadium's
courts, often dreams of restoring the old glory of Cambodia in the sports arena.
But in absence of a playing area he says it is impossible to practice.
The young athletes are also concerned that once-renovated, the stadium will remain
out-of-bounds for general public use or entail unaffordable daily entrance fees.
Sophara, meanwhile, remains ambiguous about the eventual fate of the stadium project
and if or when Yuan Ta will follow through on its contractual obligations or be dropped
from the project.
"There is nothing that I can do at this stage, as the matter has gone out of
my hands.... [after the MUC's approval]," Sophara said.
"Only the Council of Ministers will now decide [on the stadium project's future]."
A slice of stadium history
Conceived as the National Sports Center in 1962, the Olympic Stadium was dedicated
to the nation by Prince Norodom Sihanouk on December 12, 1964 at a glittering inaugural
In the decade that followed, the site became the focal point for royal celebrations
and national and international events and is widely regarded as one of the best-designed
modern structures in Cambodia.
The first major events that took place at the stadium were the Royal felicitation
ceremony for the French premier Charles De Gaulle, closely followed by the Pan-Asian
Games in 1966.
With the capacity for seating 80,000 spectators, the stadium boasts a gymnasium,
swimming pool, and courts for tennis, basketball and volleyball.
The design itself, by Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann who now heads the Apsara
Authority in the Council of Ministers, was inspired by the architectural grandeur
of Angkor Wat.
Molyvann's designs of the plinth and elevation of the main structure and even the
pools beneath the grandstands were modeled on the elevation of Angkorian temples
and their ponds. His design was widely hailed as a classic example of the synthesis
of traditional Khmer and modern architectures.
The stadium went into disuse during the Khmer Rouge regime and the tumultuous years
that followed, but again became a favorite spot for sports and recreational activities
in the 1990's until it's closure in July, 2000.