As a final eviction deadline for embattled Koh Rong Sanloem businesses loomed Thursday, owners of hotels and restaurants who rented land there refused to leave, demanding compensation.
Hundreds of owners face eviction from the Sihanoukville island, where the government has granted two private companies the right to develop nearly the entirety of the 2,400-hectare island. While landowners received compensation for the land transfer, many owners of restaurants and hotels rent their land and have yet to be offered compensation despite making significant investment in their businesses.
Provincial authorities initially told businesses and resorts to demolish their properties in a surprise January notice, which was extended several times with February 16 as the final deadline. Officials say roughly there are roughly 200 residents on the island but claimed that the majority agreed to vacate by the deadline, and that a working group is continuing to negotiate with the holdout businesses and resorts. Officials would comment on the number of businesses impacted.
Many business owners who are renters appear to have little recourse.
A rental contract obtained by CamboJA notes that if the state needs to claim the land back, the contract can be terminated without compensation. The lack of advance notice has left business owners particularly angry.
One Cambodian man owned a resort on a plot of 55-by-100 square meter land which he rented for $2,000 per month and for which he had recently renewed his rental contract. Since 2018, he said he had invested $200,000 to build up his resort.
The authorities “forced us to demolish without compensation, they have only talked with the land owner and the land owner is able to exchange land, but for us who run businesses who have rented the land, we get no compensation at all,” he said.
Whenever he raised the issue with the government, he said officials told him to sort it out with the landowner, who in turn insisted it was the government’s responsibility.
“The authorities encourage us to claim [compensation] from the land owner and if we want to sue, sue the land owner,” he said. “The land owner doesn’t give any compensation to us, that is why I want a resolution.”
Under pressure from authorities, the resort owner said this week he accepted $10,000 from one of the companies in exchange for demolishing his property, but only because he knew he would otherwise end up with no compensation at all.
Pey Samedy, the owner of Dolphin Bay Resort, says that he will not leave without suitable compensation, noting that he has invested $300,000 since 2015 for building his resort. Because he rents the land on which it stands, a 250-by-250 meter plot, he has not been offered compensation.
“We are not opposed to leaving but we want a proper solution, and we need suitable compensation,” he said. “[We won’t leave] unless we have a proper solution… I have lost income for about three years due to Covid-19 pandemic.”
Sor Sothara, who owns The Pipes Resort, said he too had no plan to move.
“The [eviction] deadline was February 16 but I am not going to remove it because authorities have no resolution as compensation,” he said.
“[I] am very worried and worried but if they have not settled on a resolution, I will not leave.”
Sothara said that he started his business in 2016 by renting a 40-by-400 meter plot from the landlord at $1300 a month, and invested $400,000 to build his resort and restaurant. In January, authorities sprayed-painted red on his businesses — a mark for buildings to be removed.
“I have contacted the landowner, he told me that the land was given back to the state, and he asked me to resolve it with the government, but the government has no solution,” he said.
“I’m just waiting to see because I, as a common citizen, have no power against them,” he said. “We are running a legal business, we just want a proper solution that is acceptable to both sides.”
A spokesperson for the provincial administration confirmed that two companies were taking over the island: Emario Shonan Marine Corporation, which claims 1,124 hectares, and Koh Rong Sanloem Island Resort, with 1,120 hectares. The letter says both contracts date back to 2008, and the government signed a 99-year lease with the two private companies.
Preah Sihanouk provincial spokesperson Kheang Phearom said that some 95 percent of business owners have already voluntarily left the demarcated area.
“The majority of people have cooperated to remove [their businesses] and there is no coercion,” he said.
“I would like to verify that there is no destruction of people’s houses and no evictions of people but authorities went down to resolve the problem and people are volunteering” to remove their structures, Phearom said.
He claimed that only a small number of people — he would not specify how many — have asked for more time.
Phearom said that a task force has prepared a relocation site for villagers and businesses who are being affected by the development projects, though he declined to comment on the specific land size at the relocation site, besides saying it would be elsewhere on the island.
“If we do not manage [public order] they will continue living illegally on state land,” Phearom said.
He added that the land is state land and people occupying the land had no legal right to build property there, but he did not explain why individual owners had been allowed to live and run businesses on the land for many years.
While land concessions are granted at the national level, titles and the right to build on the land is handled by local authorities, noted Nget Chou an investment consultant who said the fact that buildings were permitted at all suggested a level of impropriety.
“We do not know [how] they have permission for investment from authorities, mostly, they [business owners] have colluded with local authorities,” he said.
Vann Sophath, a business and human project coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, urged authorities to seek a resolution for business owners even if that meant negotiating directly between landlord and renter.
“They need to have a solution that can be acceptable to both sides, including the authorities, and we should not evict them,” he said.
Nuon Bunthol, Koh Rong city governor, declined to comment.
(Additional reporting by Sovann Sreypich)