The Revenue Fields

3 minute read
Kevin Doyle/Phnom Penh

Two days after Vietnamese troops drove Pol Pot from power in 1979, a Cambodian farmer named Neang Say returned to his home village of Choeung Ek on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. He came upon a tree with blood, brain matter and hair embedded in the bark. Nearby he found an open pit filled with corpsesone of the 129 mass graves dug by the Khmer Rouge for the estimated 17,000 people they executed at the secluded spot. Neang Say was one of the first people to bring Choeung Ek’s horrors to the attention of the invading Vietnamese and the outside world. In the 26 years since then, thousands of foreign tourists have journeyed to see the famous killing fields.

Last week, after almost 20 years as the general manager of the Choeung Ek genocide memorial, Neang Say revealed to the Cambodian media a second secret about the mass gravesa plan to privatize them, turning over their management to a Japanese company so they can be transformed into a revenue-generating tourist attraction. According to a contract signed on March 18, the new operator, JC Royal Co., is expected to “increase revenue for the state and develop and renovate the beauty of Choeung Ek killing fields.” JC Royal is to pay the municipality of Phnom Penh $15,000 a year. In return, it will be allowed to jack up entrance fees, charging foreign visitors up to $3 instead of the current 50 cents.

The 30-year deal, which came into effect on April 1, was kept secret until Neang Say, 42, blew the whistle. Sitting in his small office next to the killing fields’ souvenir shop, he says: “I want the world to know that Cambodia has become a place where they use the bones of the dead to make business.”

The government reacted defensively to news reports about the contract. On Thursday, the country’s powerful Council of Ministers released a statement that Chea Vandeth, Cabinet Chief for Prime Minister Hun Sen, was the chairman of JC Royal, and that he would donate any profit from the killing fields to the Sun Fund, a philanthropic organization established by the Prime Minister in 2002. But critics of the deal have not been appeased. Youk Chhang, director of a Khmer Rouge archive called the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen last week seeking his intervention. “Any contract contains benefits, and we should not benefit from the souls of those who have died,” says Youk Chhang. “Genocide should not be commercialized. It is already bad enough to have lived through genocide.”

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