Scepticism clouds massive coastal development plan

Source: Phnom Penh Post |Mon, 17 October 2016, by and

kampot

An artist’s rendition shows the $23.2 billion French Riviera City project planned for Kampot province. Photo supplied

A representative of the company behind a massive $23.2 billion development in Kampot province – which envisions creating two islands off the coast – insisted yesterday that the company was not engaged in any activities that would raise a conflict of interest and that it was operating as “transparent” as possible in order to secure project approval from Cambodian government officials.

Ben Berett, general manager of Pallas Brilliant Investment and Development Co Ltd – a company registered late last year by the wife of a senior minister within the office of the prime minister – stressed that “everything is above board”.

“Of course, everyone is sceptical [about our development] and wondering if we are insane, but we will be as transparent as we can, which is a change compared to how things are usually done here,” he said.

The massive project has the full backing of high-level government officials, including Land Management Minister Chea Sophara and Tourism Minister Thong Khon, he claimed.

“This is the first time we have been able to get all these ministries in line to actually agree on something,” he said.

A Post investigation found evidence linking Pallas Brilliant to Kao Kim Hourn, a minister delegate attached to Prime Minister Hun Sen and chairman of the University of Cambodia, while the company was registered in November 2015 with his wife, Khem Rany, as its chairwoman.

Neither could be reached for comment yesterday.

Berett said Hourn and his wife had been involved in the project, explaining that high-level support was needed to get such an ambitious project close to the prime minister’s desk. However, he insisted that the couple were no longer directly associated with the project.

He said Rany had been officially replaced as chairperson by Meang Chanthy, a claim backed by both the tourism and land management ministers. However, he declined to provide further information on the new chairperson, whose identity remains unknown.

“We are partners with the government on this project and that will be made clear in the near future,” he added.

He declined to give further details concerning the nine-strong “renowned team” of investors listed on the company’s website, of which the majority have no internet footprint.

However, he said the founding director, Siriluck Choochart, whose only online information points to a young hospitality student at Prince of Songkla University in Phuket, Thailand, “is the daughter of someone that is very powerful in Thailand”.

Berett said he expects Pallas Brilliant’s $23.2 billion flagship development in the Gulf of Thailand near Kampot, dubbed the “French Riviera City,” to be approved by the Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC) by the middle of next month, with construction on the 4,158 hectare multipurpose tourism resort to be completed in under five years.

He said that unlike other development projects, no villagers would be displaced, as the resort city would be located on two purpose-built islands off the coast. The construction of the islands near sensitive mangrove forests would in fact benefit the coastal ecology, he said, as they would be built of sand dredged from shallow waters, removing decades of sewage buildup.

Berett stressed that Pallas Brilliant’s Dubai-based parent company was not soliciting investment for the project’s development. He said the firm, which holds 20 to 30 percent stakes in unnamed developments in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, already had the $23.2 billion in capital on hand.

“We have all the funding in place and we are not like other stalled projects like Gold Tower 42 or Camko City that depended on sales to generate revenue,” he said. “We have all the funds and are looking to develop projects in Siem Reap and Sihanoukville as well.”

A CDC official, who declined to be named, said it was “impossible” for the French Riviera City project to receive government approval by next month as company had not submitted the proper documents and the Ministry of Environment was still reviewing the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA).

Nou Chenda, an assistant of the Kampot provincial governor, said that while there have been various rounds of high-level meetings with the company and site visits by government officials, he was doubtful that the coastal development project was nearing approval.

“We have seen Pallas’ plan and they have met with many ministers, but it is still not verified,” he said. “If it is true, we would be very happy because this would be a huge project for Kampot.”

Kim Heang, president of the Cambodian Valuers and Estate Agents Association (CVEA), was more critical of the project, describing it as “unbelievable”.

“Why would this company invest so much in a place like Kampot when there are many huge projects announced in Phnom Penh that still have not happened?” he asked.

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