The view while flying over Cambodia from the inland tourist mecca of Siem Reap to the coast is jarring: The national forests that once held Asian tigers, elephants, leopards, bears and other endangered species have been replaced by scarred, deforested industrial landscapes.
And where was the beach paradise I was expecting when I landed? Cambodian coastal cities like Sihanoukville and Kampot may have made The New York Times’ “52 Places to Go” list, but for people who have actually made the trek, it’s a depressing destination strewn with garbage and overrun with construction.
“It’s awful,” Australian tourist Andrew Walker told me. He’d visited Sihanoukville a decade ago and was so taken with it he brought his girlfriend back for a holiday. “But it’s all gone now — just a bunch of casinos, whorehouses and hotels.” He’d quickly escaped to Kep, the former St. Tropez of southeast Asia, which is seeing its historic art deco homes demolished in favor of new-style mansions — but still has some sort of tranquility left.
Much of the demolition is coming via Chinese “investment.” Since 1994, China has injected $17.5 billion into Cambodia — much of which has not trickled down to Cambodians — and locals say the business-friendly term is a euphemism for “China buying us,” a local taxi driver told me. In fact, the “investment” has been the cause of massive displacement and evictions for locals, according to a CNN report.
And it’s not just Cambodia. China’s “Belt and Road” global development strategy spans Africa and Asia, and detractors say it lures poor countries into debt traps and contributes to environmental disasters while leaving locals high and dry.
I went to Kampot a little over a year ago to visit the Bokor Hill Station — a legendary ghost town in Preah Monivong National Park that was a French colonial luxury retreat in the first half of the 20th century. I was expecting a historic site in the middle of a lush jungle.
Instead, I found much of the park had been bulldozed, and new cities rising from the razed forests. Landslides had occurred a week before, covering parts of the newly built road.
“They are all for the Chinese,” said my local guide Kary, whose full name is being withheld because he fears government retribution. In the past two years, the Cambodian government has dissolved opposition parties and cracked down harshly on any press that is not supportive of the country’s leader, Hun Sen, a former member of the Khmer Rouge who has been in power now for 31 years and insists on being called Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander. The situation is so bad that the European Union announced this week that it is pulling the country’s trade privileges due to human rights offenses.
Sen, 67, and his relatives live in ostentatious luxury while 70% of Cambodians live on about $3 a day, according to Asian Development Bank estimates. A 2016 report noted Sen’s “family hold either shares or directly own about 114 private domestic companies with a listed value of $200 million,” with many of those firms presumably doing business with the nation’s largest foreign investor, China.
Large swaths of once-pristine land now house hundreds of neo-classical condos — with Chinese signage and a Chinese guard outside the entrance.
“If you are not Chinese, you are not allowed in,” Kary said. As I took a video of the housing, a guard shooed us away.
At the entrance to the Bokor Hill Station is a huge building, “the Bokor Development Master Plan Development Zone 1&2 Showroom,” which displayed a huge dusty model of what the forest was to be turned into. The display showed six hills that were to be razed and covered in luxury housing in a country where the average salary is $13,700 a year. The building was empty except for seven sleeping Buddhist nuns on the ground, taking a respite from traveling.
“The Chinese just came in the last two years,” Kary said. “They built the roads up here and the apartments. It is the Chinese economic zone — there are 2,000 Chinese living there. No one locally got any work — they brought in all of their own workers, eat all of their own food and take everything. (Locals) get nothing.”
This is a resentment that has been echoed by denizens from other countries around the world who accept Chinese money. Last year, according to Bloomberg, “Sri Lanka’s new government … wants to undo the previous regime’s move to lease the southern port of Hambantota to a Chinese venture, citing national interest.”
But there is no move to try and kick out the Chinese in Cambodia. In Bokor, in addition to the condos and houses near the abandoned French church and a historic Buddhist monastery, there is a huge casino, new hotel and a go-kart race track. It has the feel of a third-world development — circa 1982.
“The master plan for Bokor City Development 2035 is to prepare and develop the Bokor Mountain to be a smart city, with historical sites for tourists to visit, greenery, nature as well as access to the sea and mountain,” government official Ly Reaksmey told Capitol Cambodia last year.
Oddly, the article also noted: “No investment in it has been agreed and no approval of the site development has been granted.”
Just west of the Bokor and the Preah Monivong parks is the Botum Sakor National Park — which was secretly sold to a Chinese developer in 2012.
“This was all forest once,” Chut Wutty, director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, an environmental watchdog, told Reuters. “But then the government sold the land to rich men.”
The Chinese real estate company, Tianjin Union Development Group, is “transforming [130 square miles] of Botum Sakor into a city-sized gambling resort for ‘extravagant feasting and revelry,’ its website says,” according to a Reuters report. “A [40-mile] highway, now almost complete, will cut a four-lane swath through mostly virgin forest.”
“Land-grabbing, illegal logging and forced evictions have long been common in Cambodia,” Reuters reported,” “but by granting land concessions, the government has effectively legalized these practices in the country’s last remaining wilderness.”
“Look around now,” Kary lamented as he wandered the old Bokor town, “because in a few years this will all be gone. For everyone but the government and the Chinese.”
by Paula Froelich