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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Petrol station owner battles the big guys

Petrol station owner battles the big guys

THINGS have been a little heated, lately, down at the Sokimex petrol station in Koki,

Kien Svay along National Route 1. As the Kien Svay district authorities and the Kandal

governor, Tep Nunry, embarked on a safety and beautification campaign in this dusty

highway town, depot owner Ly Huor Pheng found himself in a tight fit.

The authorities desperately want to remove his gas station, but they refuse to pay

him any compensation for the loss of his business. And though Pheng has the word

of the courts and the support of both Interior Ministers, Sar Kheng and You Hockry,

the local politicians are determined to continue their fight to close the fuel depot

without paying him a single riel. Nunry has even put his own prestige at stake in

the matter.

"It will be very disgraceful for me if I cannot close this filling station,"

Nunry said to the Post.

Recently, the district chief in Kien Svay threatened to take legal action if Pheng

didn't halt his business at the petrol station within a week. When approached by

the Post, the local authorities refused to elaborate on exactly what "legal

action" they would take, but Pheng fears that it means he will end up in jail

if he doesn't comply.

"I'm afraid that they will use the power of the police or the military police

to stop my business," says Pheng.

The former Kien Svay district chief granted Pheng permission to open his filling

station in 1993. Back then Pheng paid $2,000 for the plot of land, which is located

right outside the Koki market on National Route 1.

Later, Pheng says, he spent a lot of money building the depot and buying petrol from

Sokimex. According to his own estimates he spent about $40,000 dollars for the station

as a whole.

But in mid 1999, a new district chief took office in Kien Svay, at the same time

as Governor Tep Nunry transferred from Prey Veng province to Kandal. Together they

took one look at the area around Koki market and decided that something had to be

done.

The government in Phnom Penh had just issued a decree saying that for safety reasons

buildings along National Routes 1, 4 and 5 had to be at least 30 meters away from

the center line of the road. The area in front of Koki market was extremely messy

with Pheng's gas station, seven little roadside shops and an uncountable number of

motos, cars and people. Accidents had become a too-frequent feature as more and more

trucks and taxis sped by on the narrow main road.

"We decided to close the filling station [and the shops] because it affected

the traffic in front of the market - it was very crowded there, especially in the

morning," explains Nunry.

After a few squabbles with the owners of the seven other roadside stalls in front

of the market, the shops were torn down and the owners compensated for their loss

of land.

That's when things started to go awry. Because Pheng refused to budge. He didn't

want to lose his business, and besides, the authorities had said they wouldn't pay

him any compensation.

Pheng runs another Sokimex-owned filling station outside town, so the authorities

decided he wasn't entitled to compensation for the gas depot in front of the market.

"He has had that depot for seven years now, so it is a suitable time for him

to write off the whole business. He also has another business at another gas station,

so it is not such a big loss for him," says the deputy district chief in Kien

Svay, Chea Bunthoeun.

For Pheng and his petrol station, trouble began to mount.

A petition to close the station was thumbprinted by 203 market vendors. Pheng says

they were forced to do so.

The district authorities claimed the station was dangerous, because it had already

suffered two minor fires. Pheng says it was only smoke from electrical malfunctions.

Finally, Pheng's business license expired in March this year, and both district and

provincial authorities refused to renew it.

The time had come for Pheng to take his case to court.

On May 30, the provincial court in Kandal ruled that Pheng's petrol station was a

danger to traffic and should be pulled down - but not before the authorities had

paid him $25,000 in compensation.

So far, so good. However, neither Nunry nor the district office were in any mood

to give up. They quickly filed an appeal and two weeks later they sent Pheng a letter

demanding that he stop his business at the depot immediately.

Pheng also refused to give up. He went to the Human Rights Committee of the Senate,

and a delegation of five senators came to town to investigate the situation. They

reported to the Ministry of Interior and Pheng now has a signed letter from ministers

Sar Kheng and You Hockry asking the local authorities to obey the verdict of the

court.

In effect the authorities are obeying the verdict, because it only prohibits pulling

down Pheng's depot, not stopping his business. And that's what the authorities are

aiming for now.

"We want to stop the business. But the station will remain there after it is

closed down, because it is the property of the owner," says Nunry.

To Pheng, however, it's only two sides of the same story.

"If they pull down my gas station, I make no money; if they close down my business,

I make no money. It's all the same," says Pheng, who has a wife and three children

to feed.

On the other hand Pheng, a law-abiding citizen, is determined to hold out till the

appeal hearing and he doesn't mind closing or pulling down the petrol station if

he is properly compensated.

When contacted by the Post, the district authorities were not completely unsympathetic

towards paying Pheng some sort of compensation, but said the court-ordered $25,000

was completely unrealistic.

Governor Nunry has a different opinion: "We are definitely not going to compensate

him," Nunry says. "We don't have the money".

No date has yet been set for the appeal hearing. Pheng hopes the police are not going

to show up on his doorstep before he goes to court again.

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