Local historian fears have become a reality with the house of former war lord Dap Chhuon passing from government control to ownership by commercial interests. While the house still stands, other buildings on the same site that housed the Khmer Art School are now being demolished.
The land, on Charles de Gaulle Boulevard opposite Le Meridien Angkor Resort was most recently home to the Cambodian National Youth Centre and the Khmer Art School, which teaches traditional Khmer dance skills to more than 300 students aged from seven to 15 and includes a souvenir shop that sells mementos crafted by disabled women and children. The land was also used as a camping ground for children from throughout the Kingdom.
But the land and buildings were sold by the Ministry of Education to the J&R Import Export and Construction Company.
Regarding the sale by the government, Thav Than, Cambodian National Youth Centre’s vice-chairman, who has worked at the centre since 1988, said hundreds of children have lost the venue where they could read, dance, and camp.
“We have not been able to work there since the Khmer New Year because the new owners have taken over. We really regret what has happened.
“The new owners came to see the buildings on the land and started demolishing three buildings comprising the Khmer Art School, but they said they are keeping the house of Dap Chhuon in its original condition.”
He also feels sorry to lose his workplace in a house that once belonged to one of the most respected and most feared soldiers and warlords in Cambodia.
“I have worked there over 20 years. I love the environment and the building there, especially as it has its own historical stories. We had a lot of large trees, nice buildings and many schools surrounding us.
“We have taken photos of the entirety of Dap Chhuon’s house and will make drawings for the next generation to see, in case one day the house is demolished like the other buildings.”
Dap Chhuon, was a general who oversaw Siem Reap and Kampong Thom provinces. He was a former Issarak guerrilla fighter against the French, and was given his position as governor after independence by King Sihanouk in 1954.
But in 1959 Chhuon was suspected of involvement in an allegedly CIA -funded coup plot, known as the Dap Chhuon Plot or Bangkok Plot – a conspiracy to topple the king, instigated by right wing politicians angered by the throne’s close ties with communist China.
Troops were sent to capture Dap Chhuon and on March16, 1959, US Time Magazine reported, “Dap Chhuon fled in the night into the jungles in his under-sarong. Last week, acting on another tip, Sihanouk's forces captured him. Shortly afterward the government announced that Dap Chhuon had died ‘of injuries,’ but had made ‘important revelations’ first to his captors.
“Message to Ike. Pictures of Dap Chhuon's bleeding body were posted in triumph on the trees lining Pnompenh's avenues, and Sihanouk flew a delegation of foreign diplomats into Siemréap to show them the ‘proof’ of a plot – two captured Vietnamese radio operators, $4,000,000 worth of gold, and a purported message to Cambodian exiles in Thailand asking the strength of their forces. Brushing aside the denials from Thailand and South Viet Nam, Sihanouk thanked the Communists for tipping him off, and then turned on a ‘certain leading power’ that furnishes arms to both Thailand and South Viet Nam. Demanding to know why the U.S., if not involved, had not told him of the plot, Sihanouk fired off a message to President Eisenhower asking U.S. intervention to prevent ‘further subversion’ of Cambodia with U.S. arms.
“The U.S. had certainly not been in on any plot to get Sihanouk, for it regards the ex-King as a likable but volatile fellow whose popularity among his country's 5,000,000 people is undisputed. U.S. diplomats in the area fear that South Viet Nam and Thailand, by putting pressure on Sihanouk, may bring about the very tragedy they wish to prevent. Sihanouk, who has twice rejected Red China's offers of military aid, might in a moment of pique become neutralist on the Red side.”
In July 2011, Post ran a story about Dap Chhuon’s 83-year-old wife Chan Oudomsak , who was living in Tbeang Kert village and nursed by her daughter Kherng Bronor who recalled, “When Dab Chhuon was arrested, he was wearing a normal sarong because it was a Sunday, his day off, and he was not in uniform.
“He was in his rice paddy at Srea Noy when he yelled that he’d been shot. He handed his pistol over to my mum, telling her to kill him outright, but she was too frightened to shoot him. Domsak called out loudly to the soldiers please to stop shooting, but they kept firing.
“However, they couldn’t kill her or Dap Chhuon then because she had magical spells protecting her.
“My mother was then taken away by truck and held for a few days before she was released. By then, her husband had disappeared.”
The sale of the former war lord’s house and land was mired in dissent in April 2012 when it was alleged in an anonymous letter from members of the Siem Reap community sent to Prime Minister Hun and obtained by the Post that the ministry had sold the site for $500, 000.
The company that bought the land listed the property for sale for $7 million, the letter claimed, adding that some of the children affected by the sale are orphans or from poor families.
This happened around the same time that Siem Reap provincial departments were moved to the Siem Reap Administrative City, about 20 kilometres from the city.
In exchange for the new site and buildings, the provincial government was to hand over to the J & R Import, Export and Construction Company a number of buildings in downtown Siem Reap, many of them on valuable riverfront land.
But the new Administrative City was doomed because staff complained about the long distances they had to travel to get to their work place.
On May 3 last year, the Post reported, “Commonsense has prevailed with authorities apparently conceding that Siem Reap’s Administrative City, opened to great fanfare in January 2011, is a dud.
“The new promise is that most government offices banished to the far-flung bureaucratic outpost will be relocated back into town.
“On Monday April 29, it was announced that changes would be made to offices located in the Siem Reap Administrative City due to its distance from Siem Reap’s business district.
“Tea Banh, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of National Defense said, during a ceremony marking the installation of a new Siem Reap governor, that… the so-called city would be moved to a site nearer town in the very near future.”