Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Boeung Kak lake latest city sell-off

By Allister Hayman and Sam Rith
Phnom Penh Post, Issue 16 / 03, February 9 - 22, 2007

Thousands of Phnom Penh's residents who live around Boeung Kak Lake may have to pack up and move after the Municipality's signing of a lease for an 133 hectare area.

Signed by Governor Kep Chuktema, the deal includes at least ten of the 24 villages that surround Boeung Kak - including the bar-lined strip known as "The Lake" - and will lead to the displacement of more than 3,900 families and hundreds of businesses.

The 99-year renewable lease was signed February 6 and was reportedly worth $79 million, with little known developer Shukaku Inc paying $0.60 per square meter for the leasehold.

Municipal officials said the developer plans to build a commercial and residential area, which will include shops, hotels, apartments, a university and a "green zone."

Though the plan does not specifically refer to the fate of the lake, with Boeung Kak consuming 90 hectares of the 133-hectare leasehold, economic logic and precedent suggest it will be filled. Last year, a 119-hectare land fill on the eastern shore of Pong Peay lake in the Tuol Kok district was completed as part of the "New Town Project."

Confusion now clouds the fate of the International Dubai Mosque, which lies within the leasehold.

Mosque Imam San Morhamin, 75, said he is uncertain about the future of the mosque, but said Chuktema told him that the mosque's land would not be included in the leasehold.

"We were given this land by Sihanouk in 1969," he said. "I believe it is a state asset."

Shukaku Inc is headed by Lao Meng Khin, also a director of controversial logging giant Pheapimex, which is accused of land grabbing and deforestation in Pursat province.

According to Global Witness, Pheapimex is a major donor to the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party and both Khin and his wife Choeng Soheap - the owner of Pheapimex - enjoy close relations with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Chuktema said on signing the agreement that the project was in line with the muncipality's plan for the beautification and development of Phnom Penh. Chuktema said municipal authorities would begin work immediately to notify residents and owners in the area to discuss their future.

Nuon Sokchea, a lawyer at the community legal center's public interest legal advocacy project, said she has serious concerns about the deal after a lack of consultation with the community and a lack of disclosure on the part of the developer.

"According to the law the government cannot give the lake to a private company to develop as it is public property," she said. "We are really concerned how the development will affect the people and hope it will not override their land rights."

Residents and business owners along the lakeside who spoke to the Post on February 8 were either unaware of the concession or had only read about it in a local newspaper. Many of them have lived in the area for more than a decade and claimed legal ownership of their land. None had received notification from the municipal authorities and many were worried.

Tauch Sarim, 64, the owner of the popular Lakeside Guesthouse, was shocked when he heard the news.

"It seems like I will be losing everything," he said. "When I heard this, the hair stood on the back of my neck."

Sarim said he has owned his business since 1998, and the prospect of a lakeside guesthouse without a lakeside was devastating.

"Before I heard they would take only a part of the lake, so I think that's okay. Our government has a plan to develop the area. But now it's not good. It means they take the whole area."

Sarim said he had received no information about compensation, only that the municipal authorities would "come and talk to us about moving."

Daun Penh district Deputy Governor Ek Khun Doen told local media on February 8 that the residents of the district were living on the land illegally and the area "belongs to the state."

But when contacted by the Post, Doen retracted his claim. "I don't know for sure whether the people in that area own their land or not," he said.

According to Sangkat Srah Chak Commune Chief, Chhay Thirith, all the villagers affected have legal title to their land. "Those villagers in the ten villages affected are living legally, as accepted by the Ministry of Interior," he said.

Cambodia's 2001 Land Law prohibits deprivation of ownership without due process and grants the right to apply for a land title to someone who has been in possession of a private property for five years. Article 44 of the Constitution states that the government can only deprive someone of property for "public interest" purposes and requires the payment of fair and just compensation.

Thirith said he did not know what would happen to the residents, as he had not been informed of the municipality's plans. He said he hoped the development would be in accordance with Hun Sen's stated policy of removing residents to housing within the district, rather than relocation to the city's outskirts.

When contacted by the Post, Chuktemna refused to comment further on the plans. But Soun Rindy, spokesperson for Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong, said the municipality was determining a plan for the residents, with those who are part of their community group treated differently to those who are not. "The municipality is organizing a policy to deal with the people who are living in the community," he said.

Last July, in a public relations exercise, municipal officials took residents of Boeung Kak's Village 22 to tour a housing complex constructed by Phanimex in the Borei Keila district.

Deputy Municipal Governor Mann Chhoeun said at the time he considered this kind of "in the place" development a possible solution for the Boeung Kak evictees. But Chea Sivorn, 47, a resident of Village 22, said she visited the complex and was not impressed.

"The building was too high and the apartments were only four by six meters. It is too narrow," she said.

Sivorn and other residents of Village 22 said they wanted the developer or the municipal authority to buy the land off them at a fair price so they could buy another property of their choosing.

"We won't just agree to be moved to some place like Borei Keila," Sivorn said.

Other residents, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said they feared they would be forcibly removed to the outskirts of the city, like the evictees from Tonle Bassac, where there is a lack of amenities and the price of services is high.

Despite talk of "in the place" development, they said the muncipality's track record of forced land evictions gave them little cause for confidence.

"I don't know how I can live in the outskirts and support my family," a long-term resident of Village 6 said. "We will have income loss and spending increase. I fear I will lose everything."

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