Saturday, May 25, 2002

Ek Madra
Reuters News Agency

p. A14.

Cambodian town hopes bridge will leave past behind

KOH KONG, Cambodia — A new bridge linking southern Cambodia to Thailand is promising to transform the lives of tens of thousands of villagers once dependent on marijuana plantations and organized crime for subsistence.

Known for years as Cambodia's Wild West — a haven for drug dealers, human trafficking and prostitution — the province of Koh Kong is on the brink of a new era, provincial officials say.

But many experts fear improved transport links will benefit international criminal syndicates.

Until the late 1990s, the southwest tip of Cambodia, which shares a coastline with Thailand, was a paradise for gun-toting gangsters, a hub for the multimillion-dollar illegal logging industry and a production zone for a staggering quantity of marijuana.

Now, after years of anti-logging campaigns and drug crackdowns, Koh Kong is trying to build a friendlier image and steer the economy away from the black market.

The new bridge, opened last month, spans a two-kilometre bay separating the town of Koh Kong from Thailand's southern province of Trat, to the west.

The bridge is Koh Kong's first direct land link to Thailand, and construction is also under way on a road to the capital, Phnom Penh.

The hope is that the bridge will increase tourism and trade from Thailand, and give the infamous costal town the facelift it is seeking. But it could also lead to a surge in organized crime.

Roads to Koh Kong were cut in the 1970s by civil war, although the province is just 175 kilometres from Phnom Penh. Until earlier this year, the province was accessible only by boat, or more recently by plane.

Virtually isolated, the province and its estimated 130,000 residents were easy prey for the gangsters.

From bases just a few kilometres across the Thai border, criminals found Koh Kong fertile ground for growing marijuana, trafficking women and children, and chopping down forests of hardwood.

"When we talked about marijuana plantations in the past, we talked about hundreds and hundreds of hectares," Koh Kong Governor Yuth Phouthang said. "Koh Kong was where marijuana was grown and smuggled, and where logs were secretly exported to Thailand."

Drug lords gave farmers tools, seeds and fertilizer to grow cannabis in large jungle plantations. At harvest time, they would buy the crop back, the governor said.

It was Koh Kong's most profitable crop and employed thousands.

But international pressure on the Cambodian government to stop illegal logging and drugs mounted in the late 1990s. Many logging mills were torched and marijuana plantations uprooted.

Two of the province's largest industries wound down — or, as some believe, were driven further underground — and many of its residents have sought alternative sources of income.

The roads and bridges linking Koh Kong with Phnom Penh, which could be finished in as soon as five years, will quickly become the fastest way to reach the Cambodian capital overland from Thailand. Some worry that this link could eventually see illegal goods, already a problem for underfunded and under-policed Cambodia, reaching Phnom Penh faster.

"With the bridge, we are expecting … ATS [amphetamine-type stimulants] from Thailand to reach the country a lot faster," said Graham Shaw, an official with the United Nations Office for Drugs Control and Crime Prevention in Phnom Penh.

The methods used to fund the bridge to Thailand raise questions over who will be its beneficiarie.

The bridge cost $7.2-million (U.S.) to build, according to the man who paid for it, Cambodian casino tycoon Ly Yong Phat, who has also invested $50-million in a lavish casino-hotel near Koh Kong's border with Thailand.

Thai gamblers, prevented by law from indulging in their own country, flock to the casino a few minutes walk from the border.

Mr. Phat said the bridge will bring more tourists to Koh Kong and to his resort.

"The potential for business is there, but how can we make money with no bridges and roads?" he said in an interview.

As the sun set recently over Koh Kong's newest link to the outside world, the owner of a small restaurant summed up the dilemma for many smaller business people.

"I just hope more tourists come and stay longer now that we have this bridge," she said.

"Only that will be good for business."

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Created: May 26, 2002
Last modified: July 9, 2002
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