'Privatized' Killing Fields site tries to quiet critics

by Puy Kea

PHNOM PENH (Kyodo) The Cambodian-Japanese company that operates Cambodia’s Killing Fields memorial near Phnom Penh is increasing revenues from the site and has been providing scholarships for underprivileged Cambodian students from the proceeds.

JC Royal Co., a joint venture between Cambodians and a Japanese nongovernmental organization, came under heavy fire when it was announced last year that the city of Phnom Penh was “privatizing” the Choeung Ek Genocide Site.

But the new arrangements seem to be working out.

Several people who protested the move are now even working with the new director of JC Royal at Choeung Ek.

Chea Vandeth, president of JC Royal, said that since the company began overseeing the memorial last May, visitor numbers have increased, with the company paying $10,000 in fees to the government in just six months.

When Choeung Ek was run by the municipal office, the central government received only about half that amount.

JC Royal has agreed to pay up to $15,000 annually for the first five years, with the fees rising 10 percent every five years until the end of the 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 daily, and that he was pleased with a large increase in November, when more than 10,000 people visited.

Choeung Ek, about 15 km south of the capital, hosts a large memorial to the Killing Fields. The remains of more than 100,000 people executed during the Khmer Rouge regime in the late 1970s are interred at the site. It 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 the protests against JC Royal have died down, not everyone is happy with the arrangement.

Chhang Youk, director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, a foreign-funded NGO that catalogs Khmer Rouge atrocities, said he still hopes the site can be run exclusively 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,” he said. “Would Japan allow Hiroshima to be managed by a foreign private company?”

But Chea Vandeth said the Japanese partner has no interest in investing in the Killing Fields site but simply want to preserve it according to a clear plan and use some of the entrance fees for scholarships for students who cannot afford higher education.

Sun Fund, the Japanese partner, is an NGO established to support the rebuilding of the Cambodian educational system in the post-Khmer Rouge era. So far the group has built 10 schools, arranged study tours to Japan for Cambodian 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 at Choeung Ek are welcome.

“Without the company’s offer, I (would) have no chance to study (at) this university,” he said.

Asked how he felt about company’s involvement in the Killing Fields, he said he saw nothing strange about it because the site remains the same, but with better management than before.

According to the plan developed and paid for by Sun Fund, the company will invest $150,000 to repair and maintain the road to the site, build a fence around the compound, plant a garden, create a place for people to pay their respects to the victims, construct a multimedia center showing documentaries of the atrocities and perform other renovations.

The work is already under way, Chea Vandeth said.

Foreign visitors pay $2 to visit the site, while Cambodians can enter free of charge; they pay 500 riel (about 11 cents) to watch documentaries.

Many people objected when the city of Phnom Penh signed the contract with JC Royal, but the city said the deal would make for better management and preservation of the site and increase the number of foreign visitors. They appear to have been correct.

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 preserved, 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 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 brutal 1975-1979 rule.

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