Last week’s deadly collapse of a seven-floor building under construction in Cambodia’s coastal Sihanoukville-- a city booming with Chinese investments and infrastructure projects in recent years -- is drawing attention to problems arising from unregulated buildings and construction quality in the country.
The Chinese-owned building collapsed last Saturday morning, burying workers who had lived on the worksite, killing 28 and injuring 26 people.
The collapse has drawn concerns from locals and construction workers in Sihanoukville’s dramatic but pell-mell economic growth.
Immediately after the incident, the government set up a special commission that consists of some 100 members to investigate the cause and to examine all ongoing constructions to find out whether they have required permits and are of quality standards.
The commission will also examine the structures of construction companies themselves, according to a decision issued Wednesday.
Sar Kheng, Interior Minister told reporters in Phnom Penh on Wednesday that the commission will examine all construction companies, adding that there are five construction sites that were “built without a license.”
“Last night, I received the information from H.E Chea Sophara [Minister of Land Management] that there are primarily five construction sites which are built without a license,” he said.
“This is high risk and we need to check all,” he added.
Yun Min, the provincial governor who resigned a few days after the building collapse, said two warnings had been issued to the construction company owner but work had not stopped.
“Some listen but some don’t and keep working stealthily like this one,” he told reporters as he visited the site.
But Sar Kheng said Min’s resignation is “a good thing” but didn’t explain further whether there will be an investigation on him or not.
“I am checking other documents to see if other people are involved,” he said.
Chea Sophara, land management minister on Tuesday met with the Chinese and Cambodian construction owners and the construction company heads, warning them of construction without a license.
“All illegal constructions will be sued in court from now on,” he was quoted as saying and posted on Facebook.
“The commission will do this work truly and thoroughly,” he said, adding that he asked the construction owners to be ready to show the documents and “stop the habits of giving envelops [bribed money] to the commission.”
Lao Tip Seiha, head of the commission and a secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction, and ministry spokesman Seng Lout, could not be reached for comments.
In August 2018, the World Bank Group warned that development in Sihanoukville operated on a “build first, license later” timeline, adding that “The granting of permits and control of construction is beyond the authority of individual provincial departments and municipality.”
Given the breakneck speed of Chinese-funded developments that have transformed this once sleepy coastal city into a boomtown filled with glitzy casinos catering to Chinese tourists, a building collapse seemed an unsurprising possibility given lax permission regulation and corruption.
San Chey, the executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability Cambodia, an anti-corruption advocacy group, said much of the construction in Cambodia was unregulated.
“I think there are more unregulated buildings. It is not only this collapsed one,” he said.
“The authorities should check them and I suspect that some construction will be removed or destroyed,” he added.
Soeung Saran, Executive Director for housing rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which works on urban planning, said the rapid growth of constructions in Sihanoukville is “hard to control.”
“One thing is about the weak law enforcement and second is the growth of Chinese investments [in the building] is beyond capacity [to control],” he said.
“How come authorities didn't see the ongoing constructions,” he asked, adding that buildings built without license and buildings with no standard or quality have to be destroyed as “a warning” to the investors.
Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday said there will be a “credible assessment” on all the constructions and buildings.
“Is it better for the constructors to become the provincial governor, city governor or the minister,” he asked referring to the unlicensed nature of construction or ineffective prohibition of the illegal constructions. Therefore, there will be no forgiving from now on,” he said.
Hun Sen also defended Chinese investments in Sihanoukville amid the growing concerns and criticisms of chaos, environmental depletion, dusty roads, increasing prices of accommodations and food.
“It is true that there are broken roads during the beginning of construction. But when they are completed, Sihanoukville will become a major coastal economic hub,” he said.
“If there were no Chinese investors, would we have high buildings like this,” he added.
Like many of Cambodia’s rural citizens who supplement the family income by working in the country’s major cities, Ros Sitha, 40, a survivor of the building collapse after being trapped for some 60 hours, said he would not go back to the construction site.
“I stopped working [on the construction site]. I want to grow crops to sell,” said Sitha who is from Prey Veng province on the eastern bank of the Mekong River.
“Encountering such incident, I am afraid that other people could face danger and can get killed,” said Sitha who had worked at the construction for around two months to earn some money in to pay off his $2000 debt.