A vast, ornate, moldering gambling resort complex on the Gulf of Thailand has come to embody many of the problems plaguing foreign projects in Cambodia – lack of transparency, poor planning, environmental hazards and displacement of local communities.
The resort, built by the Tianjin-based Union Development Group (UDG), a Chinese entity, was meant to be a classy affair, with casinos and golf courses luring wealthy tourists. But the Dara Sakor Seashore Resort lies apparently abandoned – in the middle of a national park.
It didn’t lack for political clout. The Financial Times recently pointed out that the signing ceremony for the investment was presided over by Zhang Gaoli, a member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee, China's most powerful political body. The enterprise appears to have been “endorsed by military leaders in both countries.”
UDG's advertisement material boasts that the company was awarded 36,000 hectares for 99 years including a huge 90 km stretch of pristine coast in Koh Kong, an unspoiled province if there ever was one in Cambodia. The resort is right in the middle of Botum Sakor, a national park and a biodiversity hot spot where many of Cambodia's endangered species cans still be found, including rare and threatened ones.
There is no proper explanation as to why the project was given a green light given its obvious impact on the environment, but reports have highlighted that the complex, with its US$3.8 billion price tag, was no ordinary piece of work. The project is certainly a good example of the growing influence of the People's Republic growing influence on its diminutive, impoverished neighbor, which received more than US$9 billion in Chinese investments between 1994 and 2013, making China Cambodia’s top investor.
A swanky casino, hotels and restaurants have been erected, along with an artificial lake to supply them with water. In front of the complex, a golf course stretches down the hills toward the sea, its flowered fences still tended by local laborers. There is even a 10 meter-wide, 70 km-long road – aptly named Union Road – cutting through the park.
Site appears abandoned
However, for reasons the company has not disclosed, the Dara Sakor Resort seems abandoned. The casino has been completed, but its decorations have been shredded. The resort's pool, judging from UDG's own pictures, was once ready for customers, but it is now an empty pond of cracking tiles and rotting plastic lane dividers. Few if any cars use the solid tarmac road leading to the resort and even the jetty on the coast has seen no work in at least two months. Locals say nothing has been done since 2015.
Photo credit: Michele Penna
Union Group has not replied to multiple requests for an interview, but in Koh Kong rumors are swirling. One worker on the site told Asia Sentinel the project is now being managed by a joint venture between UDG and an unidentified Thai company, adding that only a couple dozen visitors drop by every month to play golf. Others argued that the company is involved in building a new road between the resort and Koh Kong city, further to the west on the Thai border.
Problems with compensation, a key feature of foreign investments gone wrong, are obvious. The coast was home to various communities – some say numbering up to 4,000 families – when UDG arrived. Nearly all of them were resettled away from their homes, which stood in the way of tourists. According to a report by the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), forceful evictions took place and some villagers had their houses burned by security guards brandishing axes and AK-47s, villagers told local media.
Fisherman says no way
Prak Thuok, a wiry fisherman in his late fifties, is one of those who didn’t give in. He received the equivalent of US$1,029 for his land, but no compensation for his house. After its demolition, he and a few dozen people pieced together new wooden lodgings on the sandy beach in front of the resort.
Under shady coconut trees, he brandishes a letter he sent to the authorities and complains about just how messy the whole situation has become. He wants his new house to be given official recognition. Without it, he fears being displaced again and has no intention of going to the relocation site.
“If I had gone there, I would have no food,” he points out, which is particularly ironic since at first authorities claimed the project would be a boon for locals. “We are very happy that they are investing in the tourism sector,” announced Sun Dara, deputy governor of Koh Kong province, in 2010. “It will create more jobs for the locals and boost the provincial economy.”
New houses have been built 20 km inland, on hilly terrain and especially far away from the sea, from which nearly all villagers used to draw their resources. Indebtedness is said to be common and some residents have already sold their houses to outsiders. Others just left, their homes left behind to peel under the tropical sun.
“At the beginning we worked as construction workers for the company, we used to get US$6 a day,” said Hem Teng, a man in his thirties, sitting on the porch of his wooden house at the relocation site. “I received a house and 2.5 hectares of land as compensation, but no money. It was better before, we could go fishing,” he claims, adding he had to look for work in neighboring provinces when he was relocated in 2011.
Unsurprisingly, some have started to commute to the beach, playing cat and mouse with security guards. “If we are caught, the company will cut the salary of the security personnel,” says a middle-aged woman under a makeshift shack on the waterfront. She is one of the about 200 families who keep on coming back to ask for more compensation. She explained that on the hills families gather about $5 a day each by logging and making charcoal – which is in itself an interesting detail, for it seems the project has managed to turn fishermen into illegal loggers in a national park.