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Sale of Development Rights to Cambodian Genocide Memorial Sparks Questions

The Cambodian government has given a Japanese company the rights to develop a mass grave dating from the Khmer Rouge regime, as a tourist site. The news has prompted questions and concerns that history will be lost.

The Choeuk Ek killing fields lie off a dusty road on the outskirts of the Phnom Penh - a quiet reminder of the 1.7 million Cambodians who died from starvation, overwork or murder at the hands of the fanatical Khmer Rouge regime between 1975 and 1979.

The field holds a tower of human skulls, and graphically illustrates how thousands were executed there.

For 25 years, survivors and families of genocide victims have worked to preserve the gravesite. But Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema said this week that he had signed a 30-year contract with Japan's J.C. Royal Company, giving it control over Choeuk Ek. The governor says the deal is necessary because the city cannot afford to maintain the site.

Under the contract, J.C. Royal will landscape the area, build a video showroom and construct a fence around the site. It will pay $15,000 annually to the government for the first five years, and the fee will increase after that.

Youk Chhang, a researcher whose documentation center gathers evidence of the genocide, says the deal will turn victims' memories into commodities. Commercializing the atrocities, he says, also could undermine the coming trials of surviving Khmer Rouge officials.

"It reduces the trust that has been highly restored in the government's willingness to have a tribunal," he said. "If you can sell a memory, you can sell Choeug Ek, you can sell the tribunal, you can sell the memory of those who have died, which is something that people do not want to see it."

Youk Chhang has appealed to the national government to throw out the contract. He suggests that if the company really wants to protect the site, it could finance a local institution's preservation efforts.

If the contract goes forward, Youk Chhang fears other historical sites risk becoming foreign-run tourist attractions that do not respect the spirits of the dead.

A government spokesman says the highest levels of government were not aware of the contract, and had not approved the deal. He suggests that preservation efforts should rest in local hands.

The communist Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia in April 1975 after years of civil war. In an effort to create a utopian agrarian society, they emptied the cities, destroyed the economy, and murdered people with education or any links to foreign governments.

The United Nations and Cambodia have agreed to try former Khmer Rouge leaders for their crimes, but the process is stalled because of a lack of funds. The United Nations has raised about two-thirds of the $58 million needed to run the three-year tribunal.

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