Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Japan-Cambodia firm 'making good' at Killing Fields site

BC-Cambodia-Killing-Fields-(Feature) FEATURE:
By Puy Kea

PHNOM PENH, Jan. 11 Kyodo - The Cambodian-Japanese company that took over operations at Cambodia's "Killing Fields" memorial near Phnom Penh is making headway in increasing revenue and in providing scholarships for underprivileged Cambodian students.

JC Royal Co., the venture between Cambodians and a Japanese nongovernmental organization, came under heavy fire when it was announced last year the Phnom Penh municipal government was "privatizing" the Choeung Ek Genocide Site.

But since then, the new arrangements seem to be working out.

Even several protesters are now working with JC Royal at Choeung Ek with the new director.

Chea Vandeth, president of JC Royal, said that since the company took over last May visitor numbers have increased, with the company paying $10,000 to the government from receipts in just six months.

Under the administration by the Phnom Penh Municipal Office, the government was getting a similar amount only annually.

JC Royal has contracted to pay up to $15,000 annually for the first five years and the amount will be increased 10 percent every five years until the end of a 30-year contract, Chea Vandeth said.

Chour Sokty, director of the Choeung Ek Genocide Site, said that on average between 200 and 300 foreign tourists visit the site each day, and he was pleased with a large increase in November when more than 10,000 visitors arrived.

Choeung Ek, about 15 kilometers south of Phnom Penh, is a major memorial where some of the remains of more than 100,000 people executed during the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s are gathered and is the fifth most popular tourist site in Phnom Penh, Chour Sokty said.

Other popular tourist spots include the Royal Palace, the National Museum, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Prison, Wat Phnom, and the Russian Market.

Although there are no more protests against JC Royal not everyone is completely happy yet.

Chhang Youk, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a foreign-funded nongovernmental organization cataloging Khmer Rouge atrocities, said he still hopes the site will be run only by Cambodians.

"A Cambodian company can do the same thing and in fact they have been doing it since the 1980s. The real issue is the ownership of our own memory. Would Japan allow Hiroshima to be managed by a foreign private company?" he asked.

But Chea Vandeth said the Japanese partners have no interest in investing in the Killing Fields site but simply want to conserve it with a clear master plan and to use some of the entry fees for scholarships for students who cannot afford higher education.

SUN FUND, a Japanese partner, is an NGO established to support the revival of Cambodian education in the post-Khmer Rouge era that built 10 school buildings, arranged study tours to Japan for young students and their teachers, and provided scholarships to poor students to study in Japan, he said.

"With the Killing Fields (funds) made available to JC Royal, another 25 poor students from various provinces have, so far, been provided scholarships to study at different universities in Phnom Penh," he added.

Hem Rumtum, 19, a student from Prey Veng Province who won a scholarship in information technology at the National University of Management from JC Royal, said the changes Choeung Ek have been welcome.

"Without the company's offer, I have no chance to study in this university," he said.

And when asked how he felt about company's involvement in the Killing Fields, he said he found nothing strange as the site remains the same, but with better management than what he had seen before the site was transferred to JC Royal.

According to the master plan designed and funded by SUN FUND, the company will invest $150,000 to repair and maintain the road to the site; build a fence around the compound; build a garden; build a place for silently paying respect to the victims; construct a video documentary showroom; and "develop the site and its whole compound."

The renovation, maintenance and other work as specified in the plan are even now being carried out, Chea Vandeth said.

Foreign visitors are charged $2 to visit the site, while Cambodians visit for free, except for watching the documentary films, which costs 500 riel (about $0.11).

When the Municipality of Phnom Penh signed the contract with JC Royal, critics expressed strong dissatisfaction, but the government predicted the deal would make for better management and preservation of the site and increased flows of foreign visitors, which appears to have happened.

Still, the Japanese government has been careful to distance itself from any direct involvement in the privatization of Choeung Ek.

"It is up to the competent Cambodian authorities to decide how the Choeung Ek Genocide Site should be conserved, developed and managed, taking into consideration of sensitive feelings of the Cambodian people about the site," the Japanese Embassy in Phnom Penh said in a statement after the contract with JC Royal was signed.

"The government of Japan is not involved in any way in the matter concerning granting of concessions related to the conservation, development and management of the Choeung Ek Genocide Site by the Municipality of Phnom Penh to any entity or person. It has never been consulted by any organization or by any person concerned on this matter," it said.

The Khmer Rouge executed and dumped in some 800 mass graves many of the 1.7 million people who died under its genocidal 1975-1979 rule.


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