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The Indochina Media
Memorial Foundation

Penthouse, Maneeya Center
518/5 Ploenchit Road
Patumwan, Bangkok 10330
Tel: 02 652 0580-1

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Tears Forever, Angkor Wat, And Ruinous Development

By Chea Chheang, Cambodia News Agency, Cambodia
      Keothida Sisane, Lao News Agency, Laos

The tears were still well in his eyes today at the memory of 20 staff he could not save in 1975 from the savagery of the Khmer Rouge.

Bangkok AP Bureau Chief Denis Gray, then the head of the Associated Press Phnom Penh Office, had offered his staff and their families safe haven in Thailand as the Khmer Rouge occupied Phnom Penh, but all chose to stay. The killing fields era followed.

The last message from a staff member reached Gray in Bangkok: “I’m alone in the office; I’m trembling; this is my last dispatch for today, maybe forever.”
While Gray could not save his staff, the memory of their tragic fate is etched in the sandstone of his mind. It is perhaps partly the reason today that he is so fervently interested in saving historic Angkor Wat from the savage onslaught of tourism.
He owes it to his former staff members.
Gray, a co-president of the Indochina Media Memorial Foundation [IMMF], recently told a class of 16 journalists from the region that developers planned to build five illegal hotels and a golf course near the World Heritage site.

Gray, a veteran of reporting from more wars than he would like to remember, has written many stories under a Cambodia dateline. He noted the ancient temples of Angkor have survived the ravages of nature, war, and the Khmer Rouge revolutionaries. They have stood for centuries as an isolated oasis of austere beauty. But will they survive tourism?

He recalled that all Cambodian governments, including the Sihanouk, Lon Nol, and Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot, Heng Samrin, and FUNCINPEC, have used the traditional symbol of Angkor on their flags.

Kim Chhai Hieng, deputy director of the Tourist Office in Siem Reap, the sleepy " river runs through it "  town adjacent to the vast temple complex, said the hotels and golf course project would be completed in 1997. He added that in two to three years, Siem Reap would be a very developed place. Businessmen are pouring in.

A high-ranking Cambodian official, Vann Mollyvann, who heads a conservationist group called "Apsara", name of the semi-mythical Hindu dancers that served the desires of the great Khmer kings, said that under the government’s charter, he must approve all hotel construction in Siem Reap. He added that he had not received any documents on the five hotels.

In the wake of the new UN-monitored coalition government in Cambodia in 1993, visiting foreign tourists have been on the increase, and Angkor is a prime attraction despite occasional incidents by "bandits" and the Khmer Rouge.

Last year, 70,000 adventurous foreigners visited Angkor – compared to 565 in 1986.
During the Heng Samrin government (1979-1989), the restoration of Angkor was sponsored largely by the Indian government. But, last year, on behalf of UNESCO, some temples in the 60-square-kilometer Angkor area were restored by Japan and France.

Gray, Czech by birth, admits to being partial where Angkor Wat is concerned. He will do his best to preserve the historic monuments, both in his memory and in reality.

Copyright 2009 IMMF.