Sixty-five families living on Phnom Penh’s Chroy Changva peninsula say their lives are in limbo with tycoon Pung Khieu Se’s Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC) trying to seize their land to build a $3-billion satellite city.
The remaining families are holdouts who refused a November 2014 offer from the authorities whereby they could keep 10 percent of their landholdings if they let OCIC take 40 percent and let Phnom Penh City Hall take the other half.
Such an offer is unfair to families who settled on the once-undesirable land as far back as shortly after the Khmer Rouge’s 1979 fall, said 62-year-old Chea Sophat, a community representative who had 4,000-square-meters seized in 2010.
Approximately 1,300 families had lived on the 387 hectares of land granted to OCIC in a 99-year concession in 2011, with the majority settling on their land in the decade of resettlements following the Cambodian civil war’s end in 1991.
Sophat said the land from holdouts refusing to give up their prime real estate to OCIC, which notably also developed Phnom Penh’s Koh Pich island after forcing out its local residents, fell alongside the Tonle Sap River and National Road 6A.
“The villagers do not agree to receive back 10 percent of the land offered by City Hall. That is an injustice,” Sophat said. “My land was 4,000 square meters, so if I accept 10 percent, it means I’d receive 400 square meters, which is very small.”
“If the law stipulates something like this, I cannot accept it,” he added, noting the residents had multiple government-issued documents proving their ownership of the land since the 1980s, when private holding of land started to be recognized.
“I will still demand my land back,” he said.
Sophat said a reasonable offer — for example, the families keeping 50 percent — might be accepted. But he said City Hall and OCIC had refused to negotiate.
In fact, City Hall and OCIC have bothered little with the protests from holdouts.
On May 27, Chroy Changva district authorities carried out what they termed “administrative measures” and completely bulldozed the fencing and longtime home of husband-and-wife Bos Chamroeun and Hol Savoeun, whose property lies alongside National Road 6 in the district’s Prek Lieb commune.
Unfortunately for the couple, their property fell within the limits of OCIC’s satellite city development zone. They said they had not accepted the offer to vacate the land that had been earmarked by the developers as part of a road extension.
Savoeun said she and her husband steadfastly refused to give up 90 percent of their land, terming it clearly “unfair compensation.” She said they had first bought a small parcel of land with the appropriate ownership documents in 1994 and then bought neighboring land to expand their holding to 2,300 square meters.
However, knowing the political connections of OCIC and Pung Khieu Se — a Canadian-Cambodian who was one of the first overseas Cambodians to return to the country in the 1980s and legitimize Prime Minister Hun Sen’s post-communist normalization of Cambodia — Savoeun said they had tried to make a deal.
She said they had given up 1,500 square meters of their land — or about 65 percent of their property — to OCIC in hopes of keeping the rest. But OCIC and City Hall were not placated, and continued to insist they keep only 10 percent.
When the couple still did not accept, the Chroy Changva district officials arrived to enact their “administrative measures” to allow for OCIC’s development.
“So I had been left only 800 square meters of land — and now that has gone through the forced eviction on the 27th of May, 2020,” Savoeun said. “The authorities came and demolished it without providing any compensation.”
“I could not accept what they have offered us: 10 percent of the land — that is unfair,” Savoeun said, explaining the home had been a sanctuary for her adult daughters aged 32 and 30 as well as her son, 21, and young daughter, 12.
“I did not know what to do next,” she recalled of watching her home bulldozed. “My tears dropped as I looked upon my land being taken from us so violently.”
It is a familiar tale for Phnom Penh families over the past few decades, with longtime property owners finding that their legal documents hold little value when a wealthy and well-connected developer forms an interest in their homes.
More than a decade after the debacle of the Boeng Kak lake forced evictions started in Phnom Penh, and even with intense international attention, little has improved, said Soeung Sen Karuna, spokesman for rights group Adhoc.
“As in these cases, we have often seen the authorities taking measures to force the evictions of the families,” Sen Karuna said. “It’s a violation of their human rights, because we see no negotiation or attempts at a suitable resolution.”
“They just carry out the measures to forcibly evict people from their homes.”
Sen Karuna noted that many developers did not even put on a show of trying to be fair to property owners whose land they wanted, while local authorities such as those in Chroy Changva seemed to just follow what companies told them.
“The authorities should be protecting the people’s interests ahead of the private companies, as the authorities are meant to serve the people,” he said. “But we rarely see the villagers receive any justice when they have disputes with powerful men, especially with business tycoons who have both influence and wealth.”
“With cases like this [OCIC’s project], there is no prior social impact assessment or environmental assessment. They just go ahead with their development.”
In many ways, things were in fact getting worse, with developers learning from the mistakes from past forced evictions and adopting sinister new tactics.
Vann Sophath, coordinator of the business and human rights project at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said it appeared developers were keen to avoid the protests and community campaigns of decades past by picking off the land plot-by-plot now, thereby avoiding the spectacle of mass forced evictions.
“The authorities and OCIC have started using tactics to evict and grab these people’s land family-by-family, rather than evicting all the remaining families at one time, which causes strong, serious and aggressive protests,” Sophath said.
“So the remaining families [in Chroy Changva] are concerned the same approach from the authorities and OCIC would be taken against them in the near future.”
OCIC project manager Touch Samnang declined to comment on why the developer would not negotiate fairer settlements with the 65 families in Chroy Changva, and referred questions about the evictions to municipal authorities.
“We have a committee to resolve land disputes, for which Phnom Penh City Hall and the district-level [authorities] are in charge. Please ask them,” Samnang said.
Both Chroy Changvar district governor Klaing Huot and deputy district governor Huy Sarun declined to comment. Prek Leap commune chief Preap Mony said only: “I am busy, I have no time to talk,” and hung up his phone on a reporter.
However, City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey defended the evictions.
He said it was unreasonable for the 65 holdout families to ask for more than 10 percent of their land. He said that other families had accepted the compensation in the years since 2011 and that offering more land now would be unfair to them.
“What we offered was a policy decided by the government,” Measpheakdey said. “If we now offer them more than 10 percent, is that justice for the other families who previously accepted the 10-percent policy provided by the government?”
He said that officials would further attempt to convince the holdouts to accept the 10-percent figure and hoped that further forced evictions could be avoided.
“We do not want to use any of these measures because we understand they have occupied and lived on the land for a long time, so we try to resolve it,” he said. “We encourage people to join with the government to develop our city.”
For most of the holdouts, though, cooperation is predicated on compromise.
Sophat, the former landowner who lost a 4,000-square-meter plot to OCIC in Chroy Changva, vowed not to give up and to assert his rights to his land.
“Now the authorities even accuse me of being from the opposition,” Sophat said.
“But I would like to announce I have only one oppositional stance — and that it is for my sake alone, because you have violated me,” he said. “This is a violation of our rights, as we have legal documents that assert our status as land owners.”