PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP)
More foreign tourists are visiting the site of Pol Pot's cremation, sparking debate over whether the spot should be managed by a private tourism company, officials said Thursday.
Private companies interested in managing the site have approached officials in Anlong Veng, the village near the Thai border where the former leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime died in 1998, said Governor Pich Sokhin of Oddar Meanchey province, where the site is located.
"The number of foreign visitors increases daily," Pich Sokhin said. "The government wants to develop the area to become a real tourist destination."
He said the question of how to manage the site rests with the central government.
"We have not given approval to any of the firms yet. Only the Ministry of Tourism and the ministry of land management can approve such requests," he said.
Pol Pot was cremated near the jungle hut where he spent his final days. He died at 73, reportedly from heart failure, before he could be tried for genocide.
At least 1.7 million Cambodians died from starvation, disease, overwork and summary execution when the Khmer Rouge turned the country into a vast agrarian work camp during its 1975-79 rule.
His body was burned on a pyre fed by tires, wood and his own rattan chair. A crude shelter of timber and corrugated tin was later built at the site.
Prime Minister Hun Sen designated Pol Pot's hut and the surrounding area a historic tourist zone in 2001 to safeguard it from uncontrolled development, and to preserve it as a stark reminder of Cambodia's bloody past.
"Historical sites such as Pol Pot's grave ... should not be privatized," said Thong Khon, deputy tourism minister. "Private companies should not be allowed to develop historical sites."
"The government will manage historical sites by itself," he said, adding that the government plans to preserve about 5 hectares (12 acres) of land around the site, to train tourist workers and to build an information center and gate at the area's entrance.
A similar debate was held over the so-called "killing fields" in the village of Choeung Ek outside Phnom Penh, location of the mass graves of thousands of Khmer Rouge victims.
The government firmly opposed privatizing the mass grave site's management, but city officials took the matter into their own hands.
Japan's JC Royal was given a contract last year to manage the killing fields and collect visitors' entrance fees.