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Cambodia's bid to be 'New Macau' stirs old wounds

Sihanoukville, Cambodia

A BUSINESSMAN leaves a smoky room US$1,500 poorer from a game of baccarat at a casino in Sihanoukville - an increasingly common scene in the Cambodian beach town as it becomes a honey pot for Chinese gamblers and investors at a pace that is worrying marginalised locals.

"It's not so bad if I lost tonight," said Dong Qiang, adding: "I will try my luck tomorrow."

The coastal capital of Preah Sihanouk province - named after Cambodia's revered late king - was once a sleepy fishing community before being claimed first by Western backpackers, and then wealthy Russians.

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Today, it is Chinese investment that is transforming the province - into a sizeable gambling playground for mainland tourists.

"Some gamblers lose hundreds of dollars in less than 20 minutes," an employee from a casino told AFP, requesting anonymity.

Casinos are banned in China, although the enclave of Macau - often dubbed the "Las Vegas of Asia" - has special laws allowing a massive gambling trade.

But Sihanoukville is becoming a popular alternative. There are around 50 Chinese-owned casinos and dozens of hotel complexes under construction.

Around 30 per cent of Sihanoukville's population are now Chinese, according to the provincial governor, who added that this number ballooned in the past two years.

At the Oriental Pearl Casino, business is brisk. Ten Chinese men sit silently while their cards are shuffled across the green felt table, chain-smoking under the neon glare from a nearby bank of "50 Dragons" slot machines.

But while millions of dollars change hands on the casino floors, insiders said, the big money is made in "secret rooms" hosting online gambling sites.

Cambodia's love affair with its communist neighbour has meant a sizeable cash injection for the once-impoverished South-east Asian country.

Billions have flowed into its economy but with few questions asked about China's abysmal rights record.

Preah Sihanouk's governor said that US$1 billion has been invested by Chinese government and private businesses between 2016 and 2018.

China's largesse is none more apparent than in Sihanoukville, a nexus of Beijing's "One Belt, One Road" infrastructure plan, which includes a planned highway to Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh.

China has also sought high-profile military exchanges, fuelling speculation that it wants to build a naval base off the Cambodian coast in Koh Kong province, north of Sihanoukville, with ready access to the flashpoint South China Sea.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen vehemently denied the port-building claims, despite the recent docking of three hulking Chinese warships at Sihanoukville's port. He also returned from a recent trip to Beijing with the promise of US$588 million in aid and an increase in bilateral trade to US$10 billion by 2023.

Real estate prices in the town have skyrocketed in the past two years, increasing from US$500 per square metre to five times that for homes close to the sea, according to real estate firm CBRE.

Yet swathes of new development make it harder to settle old disputes over ownership in a kingdom where land has been commandeered by prominent, government-connected tycoons and wealth and influence trump the rule of law.

Some local shops and restaurants grumbled that they have been forced to close while Chinese-owned ones now stud prime spots, and non-govermental organisations (NGOs) said that large hotels and resorts pump out uncontrollable amounts of sewage and rubbish. AFP