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‘Act now’ land-grab attitude

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A woman affected by a land concession granted to CPP senator Ly Yong Phat cries during a protest in Kampong Speu last March. Photo by: Will Baxter

A RACE to buy up land concessions, in which one investor emphasised the need to “act now” before available land became unavailabe, encouraged companies to side-step the Kingdom’s land law with the acquiescence of the government, a United States embassy cable asserts.

Companies openly discussed a loophole to avoid  the 10,000-hectare limit placed on economic land concessions, US Chargé d’Affaires Theodore Allegra said in a May 2009 cable made public by WikiLeaks on Tuesday.

“Saroeun Soush was very eager to push ELCs, saying repeatedly that investors had to ‘act now’ before available land disappeared, and he even tried to offer [an embassy officer] a ‘finder’s fee’ for bringing in U.S. investors,” Allegra wrote, referring to the managing director of Asia Real Property.

Saroeun Soush, who was charged with forgery in December 2010 after an article by The Post revealed his company was fraudulent, advertised “everything from 11,000 hectare concessions in Mondulkiri Province to 46,000 hectare concessions in Kampot”, Allegra wrote.

By creating multiple subsidiaries that lease adjacent plots of land, companies were amassing conglomerated concessions far beyond the 10,000 hectare limit, the cable said.

Citing Yous Pheary, head of the Cambodian NGO Community Economic Development in Kratie, the cable said that a Chinese agricultural company had secured 50,000 hectares in Kratie’s Sambor district using this strategy.

But yesterday Yous Pheary said he had never spoken to Allegra, nor said anything about a 50,000 hectare concession to US embassy officials.

A development drive had pushed the Cambodian government to pursue a “short sighted policy of bending rules and skipping processes” in order to provide quick access to land, Allegra wrote.   

Concerns over the size of land concessions and related disputes were also voiced in earlier embassy cables.

In a February 2006 cable, an embassy official expressed concern that concessions above the 10,000-hectare limit were frequently being acquired by “well-connected business people making flimsy promises to develop the land”.

“Lands under economic land concessions are typically logged and the lumber sold, but rarely is further action taken to develop the land,” the cable stated.

A March 2008 cable, which highlighted US citizens embroiled in land disputes, stated that “land disputes have the potential to be destabilising, and could have a chilling effect on investment”.

Officials at the Ministry of Land Management could not be reached for comment by The Post  yesterday.

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