Cambodia blocks Angkor Wat resort, will Laos stop the dam at its UNESCO site?

Aerial view of Angkor Wat. Photo: Mark Fischer, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Cambodian government’s decision to reject plans for a resort complex next to Angkor Wat stands in stark contrast to another project threatening one of Southeast Asia’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Luang Prabang dam in Laos poses huge risks to the ancient capital, and the case of Cambodia’s “Angkor Lake of Wonder” may offer advocates a way forward.

Editorial

The Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts announced on March 23 that it has rejected a proposal to build a theme park and resort less than a kilometer from the Angkor Wat temple complex, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Last November, casino operator NagaCorp had announced plans for the “Angkor Lake of Wonder”, a US$350 million 75-hectare development that the company had compared to Disneyland. The company said the resort would not include any gambling facilities.

“It impacts [the] environment and the heritage, so we do not allow [it],” Sum Map, secretary of state for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, told the independent news network CamboJA. “The government’s stance is to protect the value of Angkor, so any project that impacts Angkor or the environment will not be allowed.”

NagaCorp owns Cambodia’s largest gambling resort, NagaWorld, and holds exclusive rights to operate casinos in Phnom Penh. Gambling is illegal for all Cambodian citizens but permitted for foreigners in select contexts.

The river Mekong at Luang Prabang. Photo: Skylar Lindsay

The government’s decision is notable in part because of the contrast to a controversial plan that threatens another of Southeast Asia’s prominent UNESCO World Heritage sites, the ancient Lao capital of Luang Prabang.

The government of Laos is pushing ahead with the construction of a large hydropower dam just upriver from Luang Prabang on the mainstream of the Mekong river. In February, UNESCO requested that Laos carry out a new assessment of the dam’s impacts, including a risk analysis and a Heritage Impact Assessment, and the Lao government has so far said it will comply.

The Luang Prabang dam poses major threats to the country’s most famous World Heritage site as it’s located less than 10 kilometers from a major fault line. Geologists have said the dam is high-risk and critics of the project say its environmental and social impacts would transform—or destroy—the World Heritage site.

“I fail to understand how the government can even think for a second of promoting such a dam project that would turn the World Heritage site into a lake or water reservoir,” Minja Yang, the former deputy director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center, told The Diplomat in December. “The impact would be devastating.”

It appears the Cambodian government is willing to do what’s necessary to protect one of its icons of national heritage, even if it means causing friction with the country’s most powerful business interests. The Lao government seems unable to do the same.

This likely isn’t a question of valuing national history or identity but of political will. The Lao government has doubled-down on hydropower as its vehicle for economic development to the point that it no longer matters what’s at stake.

The Luang Prabang dam is a joint venture between the Lao government, Thailand’s CH. Karnchang and Vietnam’s Petrovietnam but the Lao leadership has so far expressed no reservations about letting foreign interests drive a devastating project that may wipe out a portion of the country’s national heritage.

UNESCO headquarters in Paris – Photo: corno.fulgur75 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

UNESCO and national identity play a unique role

The Cambodian government reportedly made its decision based on advice from the International Coordinating Committee for Angkor, a body established to help support and protect the archaeological park.

In February, UNESCO issued a statement citing criticism of NagaCorp’s plans and concluding that “the proximity of the project to the protected buffer zones of the site, as well as the scale, scope and concept of the planned activities” could impact Angkor Wat. UNESCO said a number of “third parties” had voiced concern about the resort.

“The proposed project by Naga has been rejected. Future proposed development activities from Naga or other public or private companies need to be in compliance with World Heritage [values],” Sum Map told Nikkei Asia in an interview.

Whatever internal discussions and political processes took place, Cambodian authorities placed weight in UNESCO’s assessment, or at least realized the bad optics involved in going against the UN body.

UNESCO also specifically referenced the potential impact on the environment around the temples. It effectively said the Cambodian government would be held to account if it pushes destructive development in the area, writing “UNESCO is certain that the Cambodian authorities remain fully committed to the implementation of the World Heritage Convention and will ensure that the protection…. of Angkor remains at the heart of the decision-making processes relating to the property and its surroundings.”

UNESCO also acknowledged the government’s commitment to “the Operational Guidelines of the World Heritage Convention, when it comes to dealing with large-scale infrastructure projects, keeping in mind the balance between sustainable development and cultural conservation.”

The question of environmental and social impacts may normally be a matter of costs in benefits, but as Cambodia had already made a commitment to its national heritage, these arguments carried a weight that other criticisms couldn’t.

Temple Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Prabang. Photo: Basile Morin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Lao government has these same commitments to Luang Prabang, a historical center of Buddhism for all of Southeast Asia and the seat of one of its major empires.

Mechtild Rossler, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, told Radio Free Asia that Laos must now carry out a new social impact assessment for the dam because UNESCO has found that the first study done by the dam developers was inadequate.

“For us, the question is if there is any impact on the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage Site. So for example, there could be a major disaster such as a dam break and, you know, security and safety issues for the population,” Rossler said, citing statements by the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission.

The Lao government has said that UNESCO may revoke Luang Prabang’s World Heritage status if the project doesn’t meet certain rules and regulations.

Photo: Blemished Paradise, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

UNESCO gives public scrutiny added sway as governments dismiss criticism

UNESCO’s action on the Lao dam comes after a long campaign by civil society groups, scientists, environmental advocates and human rights activists. It’s unclear whether the Lao government will respect its own national heritage, but a similar pattern of public outcry, followed by UN action led to Cambodia’s decision to block the “Angkor Lake of Wonder.”

The proposed resort at Angkor Wat drew criticism last year from many observers who feared it would damage the World Heritage site and expressed skepticism that NagaCorp would build the project in a responsible, transparent way. 

NagaCorp is headquartered in the Cayman Islands and listed on the Hong Kong exchange. The firm saw US$869 million in gambling revenues and $102 million in profit in 2020. It is reportedly building a new US$4 billion development in Phnom Penh known as “Naga 3”. The Angkor resort was to be designed by US architectural firms Steelman Partners and Gensler and Associates International. 

The argument that casinos would detract from the ancient temple complex didn’t appear to pull much weight. Cambodia’s Ministry of Economy and Finance had said that any worries about a possible casino were misguided as this would be illegal. “It is nothing related to gaming. There is no regulation to allow a casino to open in the Angkor Wat zone,” ministry representative Ros Phearun told CamboJA.

But public scrutiny also honed in on the government’s seeming hypocrisy. San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability-Cambodia, told CamboJA that the proposal did not make sense in part because local residents in the area have been prevented from improving or expanding their homes. He said that the Apsara Authority, which protects the Angkor Archaeological Park, “often bans people who build houses or cages for chickens, ducks or pigs, based on the criteria of the World Heritage Zone.” Though Laos may not respect UNESCO’s wishes, the argument that the dam goes against the government’s own promises regarding the country’s national identity is compelling. Though Laos may not see the enormous risks involved in the Luang Prabang dam, it may be able to recognize its own commitments. 

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