Saturday, July 04, 2009

Angkor Wat, Killing Fields, now the Tonle Sap boat tour

Is there nothing the Cambodian government will not privatise?

I once met an engineer from mainland China who was sent by the Chinese government to restore some temples at Angkor Wat. He found it puzzling that "the Cambodians have no pride" [his words, not mine - and I am saying this upfront because I am sure I will be flamed for this entry by overseas Khmers, as I do every time I am critical of this country]. The engineer said this because he believes China would never "sell" the Great Wall and other national treasures to foreigners, unlike Cambodia, where the main tourist sites are privatised to foreign in addition to local companies.

In fact, most Cambodians are extremely proud of their heritage (misplaced pride, as I've written here, and here on nationalism). However, it is true that for some Khmers, these objects have less significance than money which is why Cambodia is in the situation it is.

In May, I took my aunt and her friend on the Tonle Sap boat tour to see the floating villages here in Siem Reap. The place has changed remarkably since I was last there a couple of years ago. It is now organised and you get the tickets from a ticket booth and get assigned a boat.

I found out why it was so organised. The tours are now operated by a single company, a Korean one. The company is Sou Ching Investment Co. Ltd, part of a large investment fund established by two major Korean companies - SK Securities and Golden Bridge Asset Management.
"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." [yeah, right.]

"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."
Well, I guess the entrance fee is no longer "a problem". And USD1? Well, we were charged USD15 - each, a scam, I later found out. For the real price and advice of the trip read my Tonle Sap boat scam. [Note from a pissed off customer: Get your act together Sou Ching Port Investment Co. If you want monopoly rights to manage the tours at least do it properly.]

Find these quotes and how the villagers tried to protest the bulldozing (with no success, as usual -- I'll upload photos later so you know what I mean) here on the Tonle Sap database. The article is a Phnom Penh Post report dated Dec 14, 2007.

The Killing Fields is licensed to a Japanese company, JC Royal Company, which has a 30-year contract starting in 2004 for USD15,000 a year, with graduated increases. The Cheung Ek killing field was the main execution site for prisoners from Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, about seven miles away. Says the New York Times:
Based on figures provided by an official here, the company stands eventually to earn about $18,000 a month in entrance fees. The profits are to go to a fund that is half owned by Cambodian government officials. The company has agreed to clean up and organize the site. Some fear that will dull the raw immediacy that gives the area its haunted.
And of course, there is Angkor Wat, which earned Sokimex (or Sok Kong Import Export Company) , a Cambodian conglomerate, an estimated USD50 million in 2007 alone. Sokimex apparently pays the Cambodian government USD10 million a year for the right to operate and manage Angkor Wat.

Here I have to re-iterate that Sokimex, also Cambodia's largest petroleum company and owner of the upmarket Sokha Hotels is a Cambodian company and NOT a Vietnamese company. All the tuk tuk drivers and tour guides will tell you the money goes to Vietnam. It does not. The money stays in Cambodia (the bulk, if not all of it vis-a-vis Vietnam. How much ends up in Swiss or Singapore bank accounts I do not know), only it goes private individuals instead of to the national treasury.

The allegations are made by Cambodians because the owner Sok Kong is Cambodian, born to ethnic Vietnamese parents. And if you think that makes him Vietnamese, then you must consider me a mainland Chinese instead of a Singaporean, and a Malay born in Singapore to be Malaysian instead of Singaporean, and a Polish person born in France to be Polish, and an African American to be from whatever African country instead of the USA. If you do, you're ignorant at best, racist at worst. And if you don't, yet consider an ethnic Vietnamese born in Cambodia to be Vietnamese, then you're just a hypocrite.

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