The last Koh Pich residents moved their possessions from their houses on the island
yesterday, February 23, when they were confronted by the forces of the Phnom Penh
Municipality - military police and soldiers armed with guns, accompanied by hired
hands armed with crowbars, hammers and axes - under the command of a municipal court
Sov Hak, 58, head of one of four island families still living on Koh Pich, said,
"I have to move all my luggage today and just keep the empty house otherwise
I will be handcuffed or arrested because they [the municipality] brought a lot of
forces to my house."
However Hak said he still asserted his right to complain even though he would not
be allowed to go in and out of his house on the island any more.
Pa Socheatevong, deputy governor of Phnom Penh Municipality, had said the previous
week that the municipality would soon enforce the injunction evicting the last residents
still on the island.
Their eviction would clear the way for the island's new occupier, the Overseas Cambodian
Investment Corporation (OCIC), to push ahead with its plans for Koh Pich. This year
the OCIC, owner of Canadia Bank, plans to raise the height of the island above the
river, renovate Monivong Bridge, build two new bridges across to the island, and
concrete the river banks adjoining Hun Sen Park, a company spokesman said.
In November last year the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued the injunction ordering
the residents of Koh Pich off the island after a hearing between City Hall lawyers
and Koh Pich residents and their lawyers broke down when the judge refused to move
the hearing to a bigger courtroom.
A legal battle has raged since December 2004 over the amount of compensation the
municipality should pay islanders for the land they have occupied. The islanders
sought $25 a square meter; the city's final offer to them was up to $6.75 a square
meter. Islanders claim the city has leased the land to the OCIC for nearly 10 times
that price, at $62.50 a square meter.
Socheatevong said only two families remained on Koh Pich of the more than 300 families
who once lived there. "The 307 families had already moved and [how] could we
accept the two families [to stay]?" he said.
But Hak also said late last week that he would not move off the island if he did
not get suitable payment for his land.
"I still live and plant vegetables as usual on my land, more than one hectare,
on Koh Pich," Hak said. "My land is still my land."
Hak said he had heard nothing since he filed his complaint to the Appeal Court after
the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued its injunction in November.
Hak said he now did not know what a fair price would be to sell his land.
"I now just wait and see the real situation," Hak said. "For a month
or so I have known that the city offered 80 hectares on Koh Pich to OCIC for a 99-year
contract for $50 million. So one square meter of land on Koh Pich now costs $62.50."
Socheatevong confirmed that in January the municipality signed a contract leasing
the whole of Koh Pich's 80 hectares to the OCIC but he declined to give the price
and the length of the lease. He said the city in principle is still offering residents
$6.75 a square meter.
But former islander Chum Sameourn, 51, said he had sold 20,000 square meters of his
land to the city for $12 a square meter and the remaining 15,000 for $10 a square
meter. Sameourn said he sold his land after Kem Sokha and other human rights workers
were arrested at the beginning of the year. Nine other families sold up and left
the island on the same day as Sameourn.
"I saw they [the government] arrest the human rights people; I was afraid they
would violate my family and grab my land," he said. "I decided to sell
the land; it is better than being moved away with nothing. I have only that land."
Sameourn explained that he sold the land to the municipality through an agent who
claimed to have a good relationship with the municipality, especially Governor Kep
Chuktema, and could get a high price.
Sameourn now lives in Deum Sleang village, Sangkat Chbar Ampov II, Meanchey district,
just 1km across the Bassac River from Koh Pich. But he cannot plant any vegetables
because the place is full of buildings.
"Now I am worried because I haven't found any career yet," he said. "I
have only a little money left after buying apartments."
Lok Thou, 35, said he also sold his 3,900 square meters to the municipality for $12
a square meter, because of the injunction order and especially because of the arrest
of the human rights activists. Thou moved to the same village as Sameourn.
"Now, besides being a high school teacher, I have no work to do," he said.
"It is so different from Koh Pich, where I planted vegetables and could earn
40,000 to 50,000 riel a day. But here [in Deum Sleang] I have to pay for everything
such as vegetables or even the water, 2000 riel a cubic meter."
Touch Samnang, Koh Pich project manager for the OCIC, said he had been in the job
since his company signed a 99-year contract with the municipality in January.
Samnang said that this year his company planned to pump in soil to raise Koh Pich
higher in the river, renovate Monivong Bridge, build two bridges across to Koh Pich
and concrete the river banks by Hun Sen Park.
He said OCIC planned to build a 222-meter-high tower, commercial buildings, markets,
apartments, condos, hotels, and an exhibition building. OCIC is the holding company
for Canadia Bank, he said.