Tue, Jan 29, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Cambodia’s bid to be ‘New Macau’ stirs old wounds as Chinese cash in

The nation’s love affair with its communist neighbour has meant big bucks for the once-impoverished Southeast Asian country, injecting billions into its economy without questions about China’s abysmal rights record

By Sophie Deviller and Suy Se  /  AFP, SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia

One of the many Chinese casino establishments, pictured last month, in Cambodia’s Sihanoukville, the coastal capital of Preah Sihanouk province.

Photo: AFP

A businessman leaves a smoky room US$1,500 poorer from a game of Baccarat at a casino in Sihanoukville — an increasingly common scene in the Cambodian beachtown as it becomes a honeypot for Chinese gamblers and investors at a pace worrying marginalized locals.

“It’s not so bad if I lost tonight,” said Dong Qiang, adding: “I will try my luck tomorrow.”

The coastal capital of Preah Sihanouk province — named after Cambodia’s revered late king — was once a sleepy fishing community before being claimed first by Western backpackers, and then wealthy Russians.

Today it is Chinese investment that is transforming the province — into a sizable gambling playground for Chinese tourists.

“Some gamblers lose hundreds of dollars in less than 20 minutes,” an employee from a casino said, requesting anonymity.

Casinos are banned in China, although the enclave of Macau — often dubbed the “Las Vegas of Asia” — has special laws allowing a massive gambling trade.

But Sihanoukville is becoming a popular alternative. There are around 50 Chinese-owned casinos and dozens of hotel complexes under construction.

Around 30 percent of Sihanoukville’s population are now Chinese, according to the provincial governor, who said this number ballooned in the past two years.

At the Oriental Pearl Casino, business is brisk. Ten Chinese men sit silently while their cards are shuffled across the green felt table, chain-smoking under the neon glare from a nearby bank of “50 Dragons” slot machines.

But while millions of dollars change hands on the casino floors, insiders say the big money is made in “secret rooms” hosting online gambling sites.

CHINA’S LARGESSE

Cambodia’s love affair with its communist neighbor has meant a sizable cash injection for the once-impoverished Southeast Asian country. Billions have flowed into its economy but with few questions asked about China’s abysmal rights record.

Preah Sihanouk’s governor Yun Min said US$1 billion has been invested by Chinese government and private businesses between 2016 and last year.

And China’s largesse is none more apparent than in Sihanoukville, a nexus of Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure plan, which includes a planned highway to Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh.

China has also sought high-profile military exchanges, fueling speculation that it wants to build a naval base off the Cambodian coast in Koh Kong province, north of Sihanoukville, with ready access to the flashpoint South China Sea.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen vehemently denied the port-building claims, despite the recent docking of three hulking Chinese warships at Sihanoukville’s port.

He also returned from a recent trip to Beijing with the promise of US$588 million in aid and an increase in bilateral trade to US$10 billion by 2023.

PRICE HIKES

Real estate prices in the town have skyrocketed in the past two years, increasing from US$500 per square meter to five times that for homes close to the sea, said real estate firm CBRE.

The provincial governor describes Chinese money as “a diamond and golden chance for all.”

“They bring money to invest because they see our potential,” Yun Min said.

Yet swathes of new development make it harder to settle old disputes over ownership in a kingdom where land has been commandeered by prominent, government-connected tycoons and wealth and influence trump the rule of law.

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