Forget Pol Pot, just send the money

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The Independent Online
In one of the most daunting business assignments in recent years, the Shandwick public relations group has been appointed adviser to the government of Cambodia.

The country is still largely associated in many Westerners' minds with the "killing fields" of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Three months ago the bodies of three tourists kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge - Mark Slater, 28, from Britain, David Wilson, 29, from Australia and Jean-Michel Baraquet, 27, from France - were found 95 miles south of the capital, Phnom Penh.

Shandwick's chairman and chief executive, Peter Gummer, said: "It's a fairly unusual account, but the joy is that it's a recently democratised nation. I am fascinated by what PR can do in attracting investment to underdeveloped countries, and those that have had specific image problems, like Northern Ireland."

The Cambodian authorities are understood to be jealous of the international plaudits lavished on the once-outcast Vietnam, visited last week by Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Last week Shandwick took Vichit Ith, the secretary- general of the Cambodian Investment Board, around London to meet Department of Trade and Industry officials, MPs, the Confederation of British Industry and the London Chamber of Commerce.

Mr Ith said: "This is the first contact we are establishing with the UK. After 25 years of upheaval, Cambodia is back in the world community."

Last August the government of Prince Norodom Ranariddh passed a foreign investment law that offers a corporate tax rate of only 9 per cent and promises project approvals within 45 days. That has attracted $2bn (£1.3bn) already, mainly from Singaporean and Malaysian groups.

Mr Ith spent Friday morning at the London Docklands Development Board, learning how that body drums up funds. He said Cambodia wanted to privatise large swathes of local industry and create a stock exchange.

Andrew Lawson, head of the CBI's East and South Asia Department, said: "The increasing prosperity is now visible in Cambodia. Once you go there, you can see that the whole atmosphere has changed. The result is a considerable melting away of support for the Khmer Rouge, which did put people off."

Dale Lawrence, Shandwick's man in Phnom Penh, explained: "We are not trying to pretend the Khmer Rouge don't exist, we just want to put them in perspective."

Leading oil companies, including BP, Shell and Enterprise are now in Cambodia, as is the Singapore-based Raffles hotel group.

However, Western reporters, reckon that drugs, prostitution, hardcore pornography, extortion and smuggling are still among the most thriving trades in Phnom Penh. They could yet prove an even bigger challenge to the Shandwick image-makers than the guerrillas.