ASEAN Beat

Sihanoukville: A Cambodian City Losing Its ‘Cambodian-ness’

Unchecked development by Chinese investors has come at a cost, freezing out locals and changing the city’s character.

By Sim Vireak for
Sihanoukville: A Cambodian City Losing Its ‘Cambodian-ness’
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Wikirictor

Sihanoukville, the coastal city and only deep sea port of Cambodia, is no longer a sleepy, undeveloped town for backpackers. This is a fact that should be welcome. But the rapid urbanization has caused social and environmental impacts that cannot be ignored. The lack of “Cambodian-ness” and “inclusiveness” is something that needs to be discussed.

The whole city is under construction, with cement trucks running across unfinished roads; large-scale cranes sweep across the whole city landscape ready to erect high-rise buildings one after another. At a very fast speed, the city has changed unrecognizably into a construction and casino boom town.

For any Cambodian, a visit to the city always sparks a soul-searching exercise. The frustration is caused by the city’s limited capacity to manage growth and the lack of Cambodian-ness in the development process.

Simply put, the city’s basic infrastructure was not ready to handle the abrupt influx of massive capital flows. The resulting development is anything but a livable city. It is dusty in the dry season and muddy in the rainy season, with bumpy, unfinished – and sometimes unpaved, due to new development — roads almost everywhere. Utility requirements in regards to waste management, sewage systems, and water supply have gone beyond the city’s original capacity.

The negative effects stemming from the ecosystem of the casino industry has also drawn concern even from the Chinese embassy in Cambodia, which frequently pleads for enhanced law enforcement to ensure the positive image of Chinese contribution to Cambodia’s development.

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The lack of Cambodian-ness is self-evident in Sihanoukville.

Signboards are mostly in red, with name prefixes such as “zhong guo” or “China”; some signboards feature misspelled Khmer characters that shop-owners seemingly took directly from Google Translate, giving odd meanings to the names.

Although the beach and coast are public property, there is no sufficient supporting infrastructure — such as affordable hotels, guesthouses, and Khmer restaurants — for a wide range of Cambodians to enjoy their holidays and festivities here.

The huge investment from China manifests itself in little Cambodian content. Other than the benefit from rental fees and real estate speculation, which is reserved only for a limited number of Cambodian people with access to property, there are no success stories wherein local Cambodians across the socioeconomic spectrum can benefit from the value-added interest of the massive investment projects.

One needs to ask: Beyond the menial jobs that Chinese investments offer, how many mid-management level jobs or skilled labor or engineering work do Cambodians have access to? How many local products, both hard and soft, are being used within the development process of Sihanoukville city?

It can be argued that Cambodia lacks the skilled labor to support Chinese investment but such an argument cannot provide sufficient explanation for the way that Chinese are dominating the local economy even in small grocery shops, hair salons, street food, and health clinics.

While Chinese investment has been able to wake up the sleeping town, the process has been left to the mercy of the free market economy — the so-called “invisible hand of God.” Without proper management and a clear projection of Cambodian vision, the free market economy can also turn into the “invisible hand of the devil” at the cost of local people’s interest.

With all the above issues notwithstanding, this is not a case of a loss of sovereignty; clearly the right to decide and authority to enforce the law are totally on the Cambodian side. Moreover, it is an undisputable fact that the Chinese embassy in Cambodia has publicly denounced all illegal acts committed by Chinese in Cambodia and requested stronger law enforcement to ensure that China can protect its good image in terms of positive contribution to Cambodia’s development.

Still, there is a need to ensure that China’s massive investment benefits both Cambodia and China, and that a wide strata of Cambodian people receive the fruit from this rapid development. With all the issues raised, now the questions is how to do this: How to ensure the Cambodian-ness of development and to project Cambodian vision in Sihanoukville? How to ensure more inclusiveness in that development?

Indeed, practical solutions exist, but these require flexible and innovative approaches to governance and development.

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As Cambodia aspires to welcome ASEAN leaders in 2022 in Sihanoukville, the current magnitude of development challenges is probably too huge to be handled by the limited institutional capacity of the provincial government. If Cambodia is to develop Preah Sihanouk province into a multipurpose Special Economic Zone, an interministerial committee that is action-oriented and headed by a prominent figure that can coordinate and bulldoze over interministerial bureaucracy is urgently needed.

This committee should have the teeth and power to implement and decide the “development destiny” of the whole Preah Sihanouk province, especially the acceleration of development of public infrastructure such as roads, sewage system, water supply, and waste management. Perhaps local grown knowhow such as the APSARA authority, which oversees the sustainable development of Angkor heritage, can be an inspiration.

In terms of urban planning, there should also be a clear zoning policy for casino areas, family recreational areas, and industrial zones. The city should work to ensure that more public space can be enjoyed by local people with proper supporting facilities such as affordable hotels and Khmer restaurants.

Although it is hard to do in a free market economy, Cambodia should also have policies to limit foreign business activities that can harm local micro-enterprises.

In terms of enhancing institutional capacity for law enforcement, there is reason to hope for improvement with the recent visit of Interior Minister Sar Kheng to China and of Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun to the United States.

Financial regulation and better taxation should also be enhanced to ensure that Cambodia as a whole can benefit beyond rental fees and real estate speculation.

The development of Preah Sihanouk province should not become an example of failure to ensure the Cambodian-ness and inclusiveness of development. To that end, the responsibility falls heavily on the Cambodian side in terms of law enforcement and concrete implementation of national development policies.

Sim Vireak is Strategic Advisor of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI) based in Phnom Penh.