THE owner of local investment company Pheapimex has been given control of the property that holds Phnom Penh’s shuttered Hotel Renakse, adjacent to a government building that is also slated to be taken over by Pheapimex next month.
The Renakse was the scene of controversy in January last year, when local police entered the compound and evicted guests, staff members and manager Kem Chantha from the premises. Government officials said the building had fallen into a dangerous state of disrepair, but Kem Chantha has sought to block her eviction, and her appeal is pending before the Supreme Court.
Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lawyer Khiev Sebphan, who has represented the government in the Renakse dispute, said Thursday that Choeung Sopheap, owner of Pheapimex and wife of CPP senator Lao Meng Khin, is set to develop the Renakse property following the conclusion of the case. The Phnom Penh Appeal Court ruled against Kem Chantha in January.
“The Renakse case between Ms Choeung Sopheap, who received permission from the CPP to renovate the hotel, and Ms Kem Chantha is now in the hands of the Supreme Court,” Khiev Sebphan said.
“I do not have the details of Choeung Sopheap’s development plans for the site, but the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has issued a permission letter that gives Ms Choeung Sopheap the right to renovate the Renakse.”
Chong Eav Heng, the, lawyer for Kem Chantha, declined to comment at length, but confirmed that Choeung Sopheap was party to the dispute.
“I have full documents in hand about this case between my client and Ms Choeung Sopheap, but I do not want to make any comment that could affect the parties,” he said.
The Renakse, on Daun Penh district’s Sothearos Boulevard, sits adjacent to the National Committee for Organising National and International Festivals (NCONIF). Officials at the committee were informed in a letter last week from Khiev Sebphan that they must leave their offices by the end of this month, and that control of their building had been transferred to Choeung Sopheap, also known as Yeay Phu.
“If you do not follow this notification, the lawyer will make a report to the CPP office to pursue further measures,” the letter read.
Kem Chantha has repeatedly charged that her eviction was unlawful, and Community Legal Education Centre executive director Yeng Virak said Wednesday that the transfer of the NCONIF building to Pheapimex violates the Kingdom’s 2001 Land Law. This law states that state public properties, including government buildings, may not be transferred to private hands unless they “lose their public interest use”.
Sung Bonna, president of Bonna Realty Group, said he did not believe the government had done anything illegal, though he noted that if the two properties were linked by one developer, it could significantly increase their overall worth.
“This location is a great location, and this property, if it is combined together, that is the best value,” he said.
Khiev Sebphan said he did not know whether the properties would be combined in one development.
“The Renakse and the offices of the National Committee for Organising National and International Festivals will be owned by Ms Choeung Sopheap, but she has not yet started developing them because the [Renakse] case is still in court and officials at the committee have not yet moved to a new location,” he said.
Choeung Sopheap and Lao Meng Khin could not be reached for comment, and Ministry of Land Management spokeswoman Nun Theary did not respond to a request for comment.
Cambodian Centre for Human Rights president Ou Virak said the pair of riverside deals provide a glimpse of the “underlying power structure” of Cambodia, as the government is likely losing money in transferring the NCONIF building to Pheapimex rather than selling it on the open market.
“In a sense, the government is getting a bad deal out of this,” he said.
“It says a lot about how the ruling party runs the country. It’s actually run by the ruling party, not by the government.”
Yeng Virak said the transfer of the committee building was just one of many instances in which state public property had been transferred unlawfully to private hands. Though he was unsure of the legality of the Renakse handover, he called on the government to pass a law on land transfers to bring order to the process.
“If it is state public property, you cannot just transfer arbitrarily,” he said.
Ou Virak agreed, emphasising the need for transparency in the Kingdom’s land management.
“The people need to know that they’re getting peanuts out of all this,” he said.